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Oxford New York 

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Copyright © 1974, 1979 by Oxford University Press, Inc. 
Copyright © 2002 by P. Adams Sitney 

Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 

198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016 

Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, 
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, 
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, 
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Sitney, P. Adams. 

Visionary film : the American avant-garde, 1943-zooo / P. Adams Sitney. — 3rd ed. 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 

ISBN 0-19-5 1488 5-1 — ISBN 0-19-514886-X (pbk.) 

1. Experimental films — United States — History and criticism. I. Title. 

PN1995.9.E96 S53 zooz 

79i.43'6n — dczi Z001037045 

Parts of chapter eight appeared in Artforum, and parts of chapter nine appeared in Film 
Culture. They are reprinted by permission of the publishers. 

"Salutation the Second" by Ezra Pound is reprinted from Personae. Copyright 19Z6 by 
Ezra Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. 

The excerpt from "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" is from Selected Writings of Gertrude 
Stein. Copyright 194S by Random House, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. 

The numerous quotations from Film Culture, the Film-Makers' Cooperative Catalogue, 
and the publications of the Film-Makers' Cinematheque are reprinted by permission of 
the publisher of Film Culture and Film Culture Non-Profit Corporation. 

All film stills courtesy Anthology Film Archives except those indicated from Temenos 
Archive and the stills of Peter Hutton and Su Friedrich, which the film-makers provided. 


Printed in the United States of America 
on acid-free paper 

To the memory of Jay Leyda, Jacques Ledoux, 
and Adam and Oliver Parry 

This page intentionally left blank 

Preface to the 
third Edition 


edition of Visionary Film began in Paris, 
where in recent years the American avant- 
garde cinema has found an enthusiastic 
audience. Christian Lebrat, the publisher 
of Paris Experimental editions, proposed 
to translate the book, together with Pip 
Chodorov. They urged me to write a new 
chapter that would survey the field since 
the issue of the second edition. 

In those twenty-one years the American 
avant-garde cinema has changed dramati- 
cally, above all, because of the great num- 
bers of film-makers who continue to work 
in its inherited genres, to transform them, 
and to invent new ones. The films of the 
past two decades are so many and so var- 
ied that it would not be possible to dis- 
cuss, even summarily, the best of them in 
one supplementary chapter. I have de- 
cided, instead, to delineate what I take to 
be the most important historical and mor- 
phological changes within the field. Even 
under that limitation I do not have the 
space to deal with individual films in the 


detail they are afforded in the rest of the book. Even if I had succumbed 
to the powerful temptation to write only about the newer films of those 
artists I had previously treated, I could barely touch upon them. The work 
of Brakhage alone since 1978 would require at least three chapters for 
discussion on a scale consistent with the analysis of his work before that 
date. (I say three chapters simply because that is the number I have drafted 
in an unfinished book.) 

I remain convinced that the most conspicuous absence in Visionary 
Film is the magnificent work of Marie Menken. However, I will not be 
able to remedy that until I have completed another book on which I have 
been working for some years. There I shall also attempt to correct my 
neglect of Ian Hugo's films. Of the film-makers who began to attract at- 
tention in the 1970s, Ernie Gehr and Robert Beavers, whom I discussed 
in the supplementary chapter of the second edition, continue to assert their 
preeminence with their films of the '80s and '90s. However, with the test 
of time, my failure to write about some of their contemporaries, particu- 
larly Warren Sonbert, Andrew Noren, James Benning, and Peter Hutton, 
grows more conspicuously short-sighted. Furthermore, although I had ac- 
knowledged the power of Yvonne Rainer's films in the second edition, I 
understood them to be outside of the central, visionary tradition within 
the avant-garde cinema. A recognition of their sources in Godard and 
Bergman influenced my judgment. But the directions many of the major 
avant-garde film-makers of the '80s and '90s explored have proven me 
wrong: Rainer was the most powerful new influence on a new generation 
of avant-garde film-makers who did not necessarily share her wariness of 
the pioneer generation and its culture. Films by James Benning, Abigail 
Child, Su Friedrich, and Marjorie Keller showed me how central she was 
and how her achievements were to be reintegrated within a tradition she 
sometimes disdained. 

Lack of space is hardly my only reason for writing in the retrospective 
chapter largely about film-makers long established and many of whom 
appeared in the two earlier editions. I can no longer claim the familiarity 
with the scope of American avant-garde film production I had twenty-five 
years ago. Since then the tribe of professional observers has bifurcated in 
the face of such widespread film-making. Those most familiar with the 
new films of the past twenty years are the programmers and curators, 
virtually full-time viewers, of avant-garde showcases and museums in a 
few metropolitan centers. As a professor at Princeton University for the 
past twenty years, I worked necessarily within the second group, the critics 
and scholars who see (and teach) far fewer new films and who depend 
upon the advice and decisions of the programmers in a way that had not 
been essential twenty-five years before. In this respect, avant-garde film- 
making has mimicked the situation of the other arts where critics and 
scholars writing on poetry or painting could not be aware of all of the 
work published or shown. Readers seeking an appreciation of the achieve- 



ments of the most important younger film-makers will have to look else- 

The availability of videotapes of some of the films I had described in 
detail has allowed me to cut about a twelfth of the second edition by 
eliminating many elaborate descriptions. That space has been reclaimed 
by the reintroduction of the chapter on Gregory Markopoulos, thanks to 
Robert Beavers's generous permission to quote from the film-maker's the- 
oretical writings. 

I have liberally incorporated into the first few chapters of this edition 
passages from my "Introduction" to The Avant-garde Film: A Reader of 
Theory and Criticism, which is no longer in print; for that text had ben- 
efited from the revisionary reflections I had inevitably had after Visionary 
Film was first published. 

In rewriting the endnotes, I have tried to indicate fruitful directions 
viewers may turn for critical discussions that amplify or contest the inter- 
pretations I offer here. However, that apparatus is far from exhaustive. 
The bibliography of the avant-garde cinema in English continues to ex- 
pand geometrically. I am particularly grateful to the scholars and critics 
who have noted errors in the earlier editions of this book. I have attempted 
to correct them here. However, I do not have space to respond to critics 
who have objected to my fundamental theses or critical methods, but to 
them too I owe a debt of thanks for stimulating my thought. 1 

Owing to copyright restrictions, some non-cinematic art illustrations 
have been removed from this edition. Some readers may want to consult 
the first two editions or look up the following works in conjunction with 
the stills I have included. Rene Magritte's La Clef des champs (1936), he 
Domaine d'Arnheim (1949), and La Soir qui tombe (1964, Menil Collec- 
tion in Houston, which I had used originally) illustrate his imagery of 
shattered windows with the exterior image fixed on the shards of glass. 
These resonate with the sequence from Meshes of the Afternoon printed 
on p. 14. Again, Magritte's La Condition humaine (1933), La Belle captive 
(1947, 1948, and c. 1965), and La Grande Maree (1951) demonstrate the 
paradoxes of a frame, which I found relevant to The Petrified Dog, p. 60. 
Any of Willem de Kooning's many Woman paintings would provide a 
parallel to the image from Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, p. 170, evoking 
the tension between iconography and broad painterly marks in Abstract 
Expressionist space. I had used his Woman with a Green and Beige Back- 
ground (1966, now owned by the Grey Art Gallery at New York Univer- 
sity). Similarly, Jackson Pollock's Cut Out (1948-1950, now owned by 
the Ohara Museum in Kurashiki, Japan) had paralleled the play of positive 
and negative space in the strip from Dog Star Man: Part Three on p. 207. 
Wassily Kandinsky's hard-edged abstractions from the 1920s bear a close 
resemblance to several of Harry Smith's so-called Early Abstractions, p. 
244. A sequence of four collage pages from Max Ernst's picture novel, La 
Femme 100 Tetes (1929), where such sequences are numerous, illustrated 



the narrative and digressive quality Smith adopted in his long animated 
film, No. 12. Finally, I had rather arbitrarily chosen Joseph Cornell's Med- 
ici Boy Box (c. 1953, Fort Worth Museum) to stand next to the image of 
the woman looking out a window in A Legend for Fountains, p. 333, to 
illustrate the veil of glass Cornell put into play in most of his shadow 

Princeton, N.J. 
January 2002 

P. A. S. 

Preface to the 
First Edition 


of this book in 1968, it was to have been 
a short collection of interpretations of a 
selected number of films made by Ameri- 
can independent film-makers. At that time 
I was taking the International Exhibition 
of the New American Cinema to a number 
of European film archives and universities. 
In the repeated screenings of a large col- 
lection of films I was able to become very 
familiar with the works I wanted to inter- 
pret, and in my lectures on those occa- 
sions I had an opportunity to refine my 
ideas. Yet when it came to writing a book, 
two years later, that original plan ex- 
panded into this lengthy study. 

The interpretation of individual films 
spread to the consideration of the whole 
career of their makers. Then the question 
of the relationship of one film-maker to 
another arose. Soon I found my work 
moving in a direction that could lead to a 
life-long enterprise, a history and analysis 
of the American avant-garde film in sev- 
eral volumes, continually to be revised to 


encompass new films. At that point I had to clarify my aspirations and 
define my topic. 

The earliest American films discussed here were called "film poems" 
or "experimental films" when they were first seen. Both names, like all the 
subsequent ones, are inaccurate and limiting. Of the two, the term "film 
poem" has the advantage of underlining a useful analogy: the relationship 
of the type of film discussed in this book to the commercial narrative 
cinema is in many ways like that of poetry to fiction in our times. The 
film-makers in question, like poets, produce their work without financial 
reward, often making great personal sacrifices to do so. The films them- 
selves will always have a more limited audience than commercial features 
because they are so much more demanding. The analogy is also useful in 
that it does not put a value on the films in question. Poetry is not by 
essence better than prose. "Experimental" cinema, on the other hand, im- 
plies a tentative and secondary relationship to a more stable cinema. 

Both terms fell out of use in the late fifties. In their places arose the 
"New American Cinema" on the model of the French Nouvelle Vague, 
and the "underground" film, in response to an increased social commit- 
ment on the part of certain newly emerging film-makers. Very few film- 
makers were ever satisfied with any of these labels. "Avant-garde" is itself 
unfortunate. On the one hand, it implies a privileged relationship to a 
norm which I do not wish to affirm, and on the other hand it has been 
used to describe thousands of films which fall outside the scope of this 
book, some of which are excellent and many of which are very bad. I have 
chosen to use the term "avant-garde" cinema throughout the book simply 
because it is the one name which is not associated with a particular phase 
of the thirty-year span I attempt to cover. 

The precise relationship of the avant-garde cinema to American com- 
mercial film is one of radical otherness. They operate in different realms 
with next to no significant influence on each other. In the forties when the 
first generation of native independent film-makers learned their art, young 
people could not make films freely within the industry. A long appren- 
ticeship was required and the division of functions (writer, producer, di- 
rector, cameraman) was jealously protected. In reaction the young Amer- 
ican film-makers turned to the European avant-garde tradition. But unlike 
the painters and poets who had made films in the twenties, they did not 
stop film-making after one or two efforts when they did not find com- 
mercial support. They continued to make films, responding to each other's 
work and to the forces that were active in American painting, poetry, and 
dance around them. 

The commercial film industry was in fact so conservative that in 
France a new critical theory was developing in response to the loss of 
directorial authority in American films. The followers of Andre Bazin 
enunciated "la politique des auteurs," which sought out the stylistic con- 
stants in the films of directors who had to work under factory-like con- 
ditions. This critical method was later imported into America as the "au- 



teur theory." However there have always been two independent strains in 
the theory of cinema. One goes back to the psychologist Hugo Munster- 
berg and includes the writings of other psychologists, sociologists, and 
philosophers such as Arnheim, Kracauer, and Merleau-Ponty, as well as 
Bazin, and has tried to understand what constitutes the whole cinematic 
experience. The other strain includes the theories of film-makers them- 
selves from Delluc and Epstein in France through the great Soviet theo- 
reticians Kuleshov, Vertov, Pudovkin, and Eisenstein. They have sought 
the ideal essence of cinema, and their theories have been concerned with 
how films should be made. While French and American critics were pro- 
pounding the auteur theory for the cinema of the forties and fifties, major 
theoretical writing was being produced by the film-makers within the 
American avant-garde. Deren, Brakhage, Markopoulos, and Kubelka were 
defining new potentials for the cinema. 

American avant-garde film theory has received even less critical atten- 
tion than the films. Therefore I have assumed the task of commenting on 
the major theoretical works of the period, and I have tried to analyze the 
theoretical stance of those film-makers who have responded in their films 
if not in their writings to these issues. The selection of film-makers to be 
discussed here has been guided as much by their commitment to the major 
theoretical concerns as by my original list of films to interpret. 

Just as the chief works of French film theory must be seen in the light 
of Cubist and Surrealist thought, and Soviet theory in the context of for- 
malism and constructivism, the preoccupations of the American avant- 
garde film-makers coincide with those of our post-Romantic poets and 
Abstract Expressionist painters. Behind them lies a potent tradition of Ro- 
mantic poetics. Wherever possible, both in my interpretation of films and 
discussion of theory, I have attempted to trace the heritage of Romanti- 
cism. I have found this approach consistently more useful and more gen- 
erative of a unified view of these films and film-makers than the Freudian 
hermeneutics and sexual analyses which have dominated much previous 
criticism of the American avant-garde film. 

In the course of writing, historical patterns emerged which I have al- 
lowed to control the structure of the book. I have had to invent a series 
of terms — the trance film, the mythopoeic film, the structural film, and the 
participatory film — in order to describe this historical morphology. It is 
almost too obvious to point out that the film-makers themselves did not 
think in these categories when they made their films. Many of them will, 
of course, resist my categorizing them at all. 

The thirty-year period which this book covers has seen vast changes 
in the incidental circumstances of avant-garde film-making and distribu- 
tion. Many of the film-makers discussed here have been able to earn their 
living in the past few years as professors of film theory and film-making. 
This is a function of the increasing interest in this mode of film-making 
shown by the academic community. Hundreds of colleges now regularly 
screen avant-garde films; they have become an essential part of the pro- 


gram of the nation's few film archives. Literally hundreds of new indepen- 
dent films are made and distributed every year. All this has occurred with- 
out any significant influence on the programming of commercial theaters. 

Naturally the vast majority of independent films produced in any year 
are of very low quality, as is the year's poetry, painting, or music by and 
large. This book does not pretend to be exhaustive of American avant- 
garde film-making. Nor does it discuss the work of all the most famous 
and important film-makers. Major figures such as Ed Emshwiller, Stan 
VanDerBeek, Storm De Hirsch, and Shirley Clarke, to name a few, are not 
discussed here. This book attempts to isolate and describe the visionary 
strain within the complex manifold of the American avant-garde film. 

New York 
January 1974 

P. A. S. 



Visionary Film in 1969 for a series of 
books on cinema conceived and edited by 
Annette Michelson. Even though its ulti- 
mate publication was not in that series, 
she has consistently encouraged and aided 
me in every stage of its production. I am 
deeply grateful for the advice she has 
given me concerning both the general 
structure and the details of the book. 

Over the same span of time Ken Kel- 
man has been a sounding board for many 
of the ideas and observations that I had 
during the time of writing the first edition. 
His responses are often reflected in this 
work. Willard Van Dyke and the Film De- 
partment of the Museum of Modern Art 
invited me to give a series of lectures in 
the spring of 197 1 where I was able to 
give the first public presentation of the 
central theses of the book. 

I cannot imagine how this work would 
have been possible were it not for Anthol- 
ogy Film Archives. In its theater I was able 
to re-see numerous times the films dis- 
cussed here, and its vast library of books 
and documents on the avant-garde cinema 


was the foundation of my research. My assistants there, Caroline Angell 
and Kate Manheim, spent many hours helping me prepare detailed screen- 
ing notes from which much of the book was written. 

Cecily Coddington who typed most of the manuscript suggested many 
stylistic changes that were incorporated. Jonas Mekas and Steven Koch 
read and commented on the typed text. For their insights I am grateful. 
At Oxford University Press my editor, James Raimes, and Leona Capeless 
were uncommonly helpful common readers of this specialized book. My 
particular thanks go to Robert Pattison who worked with me through the 
more than seven hundred-page typescript with exceptional patience. 

The more elaborate and complex stills reprinted here were made by 
Babette Mangolte; other illustrations were provided by Anthology Film 
Archives, the Stills Archive of the Film Department of the Museum of 
Modern Art, and Artforum magazine. Tom Hopkins kindly helped me 
through the proofreading and Nora Manheim made the index. Georges 
Borchardt, my agent, helped me in numerous ways. 

Julia Sitney, then my wife, convinced me, in 1968 on a train in Nor- 
way, that this book should be written. She was consistently encouraging, 
especially in my most desperate moments. 

The intellectual debts of The Visionary Film are numerous. There were 
no times during the writing of it that I was not covetously reading or 
rereading articles and books by Maurice Blanchot, Geoffrey Hartman, and 
Paul de Man. But my debt to Harold Bloom must be singled out. While I 
was at my typewriter at least one of his books was always on my desk 
and in continual use. 



Meshes of the Afternoon, 3 


Ritual and Nature, 17 


The Potted Psalm, 43 


The Magus, 83 


From Trance to Myth, 121 


The Lyrical Film, 155 


Major Mythopoeia, 189 


Absolute Animation, 231 


The Graphic Cinema: European 

Perspectives, 269 


Apocalypses and Picaresques, 293 


Recovered Innocence, 315 


Structural Film, 347 


The Seventies, 371 


The End of the 20th Century, 409 

Notes, 437 

Index, 455 



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eshes of the 


Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid 
shortly after their marriage in 1942 recalls 
in its broad outline and its aspiration the 
earlier collaboration of Salvador Dali and 
Luis Bunuel on Un Chien Andalou (1928). 
By a surrealistic principle, Dali and Bunuel 
sought to combine images so that one 
would bear no logical or rational connec- 
tion to the next. This principle was not 
original to the authors of Un Chien An- 
dalou, although it never had so rigorous 
an application in cinema before them. 
Others, of course, had extended the me- 
chanics of "the Exquisite Corpse" into lit- 
erature and painting. The Exquisite 
Corpse, in its purest form, is drawn by a 
number of persons upon a piece of paper 
folded so that one can draw the head, an- 
other the neck and shoulders, another the 
trunk, and so on, without any one con- 
tributor's seeing the work of the others. 
The unfolded paper reveals the synthetic, 
radically malformed figure — the Exquisite 



In his first autobiography Dali describes the effect of the film: 

The film produced the effect that I wanted, and it plunged 
like a dagger into the heart of Paris as I had foretold. Our film 
ruined in a single evening ten years of pseudo-intellectual post- 
war advance-guardism. 

That foul thing which is figuratively called abstract art fell 
at our feet, wounded to the death, never to rise again, after 
having seen "a girl's eye cut by a razor blade" — this was how 
the film began. There was no longer room in Europe for the lit- 
tle maniacal lozenges of Monsieur Mondrian. 1 

Perhaps in 19Z8 Un Chien Andalou looked as indecipherable and 
shocking as Dali's account would suggest. I doubt it. Bunuel too has writ- 
ten a note on the film: 

In the working out of the plot every idea of a rational, esthetic 
or other preoccupation with technical matters was rejected as ir- 
relevant. The result is a film deliberately anti-plastic, anti- 
artistic, considered by traditional canons. The plot is the result 
of a conscious psychic automatism, and, to that extent, it does 
not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mecha- 
nism analogous to that of dreams. 

The producer-director of the film, Bunuel, wrote the sce- 
nario in collaboration with the painter Dali. For it, both took 
their point of view from a dream image, which, in its turn, 
probed others by the same process until the whole took form as 
a continuity. It should be noted that when an image or idea ap- 
peared the collaborators discarded it immediately if it was de- 
rived from remembrance, or from their cultural pattern or if, 
simply, it had a conscious association with another earlier idea. 
They accepted only those representations as valid which, though 
they moved them profoundly, had no possible explanation. Nat- 
urally, they dispensed with the restraints of customary morality 
and of reason. The motivation of the images was, or meant to 
be, purely irrational! They are as mysterious and inexplicable to 
the two collaborators as to the spectator, nothing, in the film, 
symbolizes anything. The only method of investigation of 
the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis. 2 

What Dali and Bunuel achieved through this method of compiling a 
scenario was the liberation of their material from the demands of narrative 
continuity. Far from being puzzling, the film achieves the clarity of a 
dream. The extremity of the violence and the calculated abruptness of 
changes of time, place, and mood intensify the viewing experience without 



satisfying the conventional narrative demands of cause and effect. The 
concentration on only two actors, male and female, and the insistence on 
tactile imagery set up a situation of identification that more randomly 
organized films do not have. The strength of the identification in the con- 
text of the abrupt dislocations and discontinuities provides us with a vivid 
metaphor for the dream experience. Had Dali and Bunuel set about to 
study their own dreams and clinically re-create a dream on film, they could 
not have surpassed Un Chien Andalou. 

The film begins with a cliche and then a paroxysm of violence. After 
the title "Once Upon a Time," a man, played by Bunuel himself, slowly 
and carefully sharpens a straight razor and slices the eye of the heroine. 
The horror of this opening is intensified by an extended visual metaphor. 
As he is sharpening the razor, Bunuel looks with entranced madness at the 
moon just as a sliver of cloud is about to cross it. At the moment of cutting 
the eyeball, the film shows the cloud slicing across the moon's circle. The 
image is both a reflected horror and a relief: horrible in the precision with 
which it suggests the cutting of the eye, and a relief in that the viewer for 
a moment thinks that the metaphor has spared him the actual slicing. But 
immediately we see the razor finishing its work and the interior of the eye 
pouring out. The strategies of metaphor, synecdoche, and metonomy by 
which the illusions of causality and simultaneity in the film are sustained 
become the structural models of the film's formal development. We are 
forced to see the metaphor of the moon, whose very tranquility evokes 
terrible violence, followed by an even more violent synecdoche. 

The title which follows, "Eight Years Later," seems to promise a causal 
account. The action disappoints the expectation. A man dressed as a 
clown, with a striped box held by a thong around his neck, rides his bicycle 
through city streets. When he falls from it a young woman rushes out of 
her house, embraces him on the ground, and removes the box around his 
neck. Back in her room, she lays out the articles of his clothing and the 
box as if to reconstruct the man from these mute objects. But suddenly 
she sees that he is at the other end of the room, now dressed in a suit, and 
staring at the palm of his hand, out of which ants are crawling. 

In a series of dissolves the ants become a woman's armpit, which in 
turn becomes a sea urchin and then the top of an androgynous head. The 
head belongs to a character who stands in the street where the bicyclist 
had fallen, poking a dismembered hand with a long stick. A crowd gathers 
around her like ants around the hole in the hand. The police intervene; 
they push back the crowd; and one of them picks up the hand, places it 
in the striped box, and gives it to her. As she clutches it to her breast, an 
automobile runs her down. The figure of synecdoche is at stake here. The 
film-makers create the illusion of ants emerging from the hand by means 
of a model shown in close-up. That illusion immediately engenders a hy- 
perbolical series of metaphors, calling attention to the concept of meta- 
phor. When they use the model hand as a prop in the street scene, it 
becomes a metaphor for a synecdoche. Similarly, the oozing eyes of the 



dead donkeys in the scene that follows this reveal a possible source for the 
montage substitution on the earlier sliced eye. 3 

The young woman and the cyclist watch this episode from their up- 
stairs window. He is excited to madness. As blood trickles from his mouth, 
he feels the bare breasts and buttocks of his companion. She tries to escape 
him, but he pursues her, pulling after him two grand pianos loaded with 
dead donkeys. She rushes into the next room and slams the door, but she 
catches his hand in the process. The palm, caught in the door and crawling 
with ants, horrifies her. Then she notices that he is in the same room with 
her, although he is now dressed in the clown suit and lying on the bed. 

The next episode begins with the title "Around Three in the Morning." 
A new character, seen from the back for a long time, rushes in on them. 
He punishes the protagonist by throwing his collar, frills, box, and thong 
out the window and making him stand in the corner. The title "Sixteen 
Years Before" appears without a change of scene, but now the action is in 
slow motion. The features of the newly arrived man look remarkably like 
the protagonist's. He seems to be chastising the cyclist as he would a 
schoolboy. The books he gives him turn to guns in his hands. With them 
the cyclist shoots his tormentor, who falls, not in the room, but in an open 
field against the back of a naked woman. Strollers in the field are indif- 
ferent to his corpse. 

Back in the room, the cyclist and the young woman again confront 
each other. He has lost his mouth. Hair grows in its place. Annoyed by 
what she sees, she looks under her arm to find the hair there missing. She 
sticks her tongue out at him, opens the door behind her and finds herself 
on a windy beach with a new man. They laugh at the remnants of the 
cyclist — his collar, box, and thong — washed up by the waves. Arm in arm 
they stroll away. 

Finally there is the title "In the Spring" followed by a still shot of the 
central couple, buried in sand, blinded, and covered with insects. 

I have passed over many details of this very intricate film. The outline 
presented here preserves the abrupt changes of location, the basic action, 
and all the titles. Let us postpone for a moment further comment on this 
film, in order to present Meshes of the Afternoon and lay the basis for a 

The fifteen years between Un Chien Andalou and Meshes of the Af- 
ternoon were not without scattered avant-garde film production. 4 In Amer- 
ica, the outstanding works of this period sought their inspiration from 
Expressionism or from the achievements of still photography. The sort of 
dream narrative that the Dali-Bunuel film offered as a new cinematic pos- 
sibility was not often explored. 

Maya Deren's background had been literary and choric. She was born 
in Kiev in the year of the revolution, emigrated with her parents in 1922 
to America, where her father, Dr. Solomon Deren, a psychiatrist, worked 
for and eventually directed the State Institute for the Feeble-minded in 
Syracuse, New York. After secondary schooling at the League of Nations 



School in Geneva, Switzerland, she attended the University of Syracuse as 
a student of journalism until she married. She and her husband moved to 
New York, where they were both active in the Trotskyist movement. She 
took her Bachelor of Arts from New York University and divorced soon 

During her first years in New York and until she began to make films, 
Maya Deren wrote poetry, but she was never satisfied with it. At the same 
time she developed an interest in modern dance. She was not a dancer 
herself — at least not a trained dancer. Her mother and friends recall the 
sudden, inspired, but undisciplined dances she would privately perform, 
especially in later years after her fieldwork in Haiti and her initiation into 
voodoo. In the early forties she conceived the idea of writing a theoretical 
book on modern dance and looked for a professional dancer to work with 
her. She interested Katherine Dunham in her project and traveled with her 
on her tour of 1940-194 1. The book never materialized, but Katherine 
Dunham had introduced her to Alexander Hammid when her company 
was in Los Angeles. They married in 1942. 

Alexander Hackenschmied, who later changed his name to Hammid, 
was a professional film-maker born in 1907 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 
then working on a minor Hollywood project. He was well known in film- 
making circles as a cameraman, editor, and director. The best-known films 
he had worked on by that time were the documentaries Zera Spieva (The 
Earth Sings, 1933), Crisis (1938), Lights Out in Europe (1939), and For- 
gotten Village (1941). 

They shot Meshes of the Afternoon in two and a half weeks in their 
own home with primitive 16mm equipment. They played in the film them- 
selves. There was no script. They worked out the overall outline together 
and talked over the shooting details while making the film. 

It has an intricate spiral structure based on the repetition, with vari- 
ations, of the initial sequence of the film, and it has a double ending. In 
the opening shot a long, thin hand reaches down from the top of the screen 
to leave a flower on a road. A young woman, played by Maya Deren, 
walks along the road, picks up the flower, and glimpses the back of a 
figure turning the bend ahead of her. 

She goes to the door of a house, knocks, tries the locked door, then 
takes out her key. She drops it and pursues it as it bounces in slow motion 
down the stairs. When she finally enters the house, the camera pans a 
disordered room and ends in a dolly up to the dining room table. There 
is a loaf of bread, with a knife in it, on top of the table, but as the camera 
approaches, the knife pops out. 

She climbs the stairs, passing a telephone with the receiver off. In the 
upper bedroom the wind is blowing a curtain. She turns off an unattended 
record player and returns downstairs to relax in an easy chair by the win- 
dow. She slowly caresses herself as a shot of her eye and the window are 
intercut until they are both clouded over. This is the basic movement of 
the film. In the initial presentation there are no full-figure shots. We see 



first the shadow of the protagonist, then her hand picking up the flower. 
Within the house, the camera moves subjectively, imitating her field of 
vision and her movements. This is a clear-cut formulation of the idea of 
first person in cinema. In the initial sequence we only see what the heroine 
herself sees, including glimpses of her own body. 

As this basic movement is repeated the transitions between the varia- 
tions are fluid, so that the viewer finds himself in the midst of a recurrence 
before it is expected. The first person switches to third. 

From the window in front of the easy chair, we can see the initial set- 
ting of the film, the road. Now a black figure, like a nun, with a mirror 
for a face, walks slowly in the same direction as the young woman had in 
the beginning. She is followed by the young woman again, who is run- 
ning after her. As fast as she runs she cannot gain on the walking figure, 
so she gives up and climbs the stairs to the house. For the first time we see 
her face. She enters without a key and looks around the room, noticing 
the knife is now on the stairs where the telephone had been. She climbs 
up in slow motion, then slowly falls through a black gauze curtain into 
the bedroom. The phone is on the bed. She pulls down the covers, again 
revealing the knife, and sees the distorted image of her face reflected in its 
blade. She quickly pulls back the covers, replaces the receiver on the tele- 
phone, and glides backward through the veil down the stairs as the cam- 
era does a somersault to dislocate her motions in space. Once downstairs, 
she sees herself sleeping in an easy chair. With a long stretch she reaches 
across the room to turn off the phonograph next to her own sleeping 

The pace of the events accelerates with each variation. The terror in- 
creases as well. After turning off the record player, the second Maya Deren 
goes to the window from which she sees yet a third version of herself 
chasing the black figure, who again disappears beyond the bend. She 
presses her hand against the window and looks wonderingly. The third 
woman takes her key from her mouth and enters the house where she 
catches sight of the black figure again. She follows the figure up the stairs 
and sees it disappear (through stop-motion photography) after placing the 
flower on the bed. The knife is there too. A quick pan from it brings us 
back to the sleeper in the easy chair. 

This time the camera looks out the window without the mediation of 
a woman through whose eyes or over whose shoulder the action is seen. 
We see the same pursuit and its frustrations. Again the key comes from 
the mouth, but this time it turns immediately into the knife in her hand. 
She passes through the unlocked door holding it. Within are two Maya 
Derens seated at the dining room table. She joins them, as a third, placing 
the key on the table. The first woman feels her own neck, reaches for the 
key, and holds it in her palm for a moment. The second does the same. 
The third reaches without feeling her neck; her palm is black; the key turns 
into the knife when she holds it. Wearing goggles, she rises from the table, 
holding the knife aggressively. We see her feet step on beach sand, grass, 



mud, pavement, the rug — five shots in all. Then, as she is about to stab 
her sleeping self, the sleeper's eyes open to see a man who is waking her. 
They go upstairs. Just to reassure herself she glances at the table, which is 
perfectly in order. The man picks up the flower and puts the phone, which 
had been left on the stairs, back on its receiver. 

Upstairs he lays the flower on the bed and she lies down beside it. His 
face is reflected in a shaving mirror. He sits next to her and caresses her 
body. The flower suddenly becomes the knife. She grabs it and stabs him 
in the face, which turns out to be a mirror. The glass breaks and falls, not 
to the floor, but on a beach. A wave approaches and touches it. 

Without transition we see the same man walking on the original road. 
He picks up the flower, takes out his key, enters the house, and finds the 
young woman lying in the easy chair with a slit throat amid broken glass. 
That is the end. 

"This film is concerned," Maya Deren wrote, 

with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record 
an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it 
reproduces the way in which the sub-conscious of an individual 
will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and 
casual incident into a critical emotional experience. . . . 

This film ... is still based on a strong literary-dramatic line 
as a core, and rests heavily upon the symbolic value of objects 
and situations. The very first sequence of the film concerns the 
incident, but the girl falls asleep and the dream consists of the 
manipulation of the elements of the incident. Everything which 
happens in the dream has its basis in a suggestion in the first 
sequence — the knife, the key, the repetition of stairs, the figure 
disappearing around the curve of the road. Part of the achieve- 
ment of this film consists in the manner in which cinematic tech- 
niques are employed to give a malevolent vitality to inanimate 
objects. The film is culminated by a double-ending in which it 
would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, such force that 
it became reality. 5 

Until recently commentators on this film have tended to neglect the 
collaboration of Alexander Hammid, to consider him a technical assistant 
rather than an author. 6 We should remember that he photographed the 
whole film. Maya Deren simply pushed the button on the camera for the 
two scenes in which he appeared. The general fluidity of the camera style, 
the free movements, and the surrealistic effects, from slow motion to the 
simultaneous appearance of three Maya Derens in the same shot, are his 
contribution. If Meshes of the Afternoon is, in the words of Parker Tyler, 
the most important critic of the American avant-garde film in the forties 
and fifties, "the death of her narcissistic youth," it is also Hammid's por- 
trait of his young wife. 


Before he came to America and worked in the documentary tradition, 
Hammid had made some independent films. His first, Bezucelna Prochazka 
(Aimless Walk, 1930), is particularly relevant here. In that film, a young 
man observes himself in his daily activities. Hammid, unfamiliar with mon- 
tage or superimposition techniques in this first film, created the effect of 
self-observation without montage by having the protagonist quickly run 
behind the camera and take up another position while the camera was 
panning between his two selves. His subsequent films display a profes- 
sional handling of the materials and an awareness of the achievements of 
the Russian and British documentary schools. 

The visual style of Meshes of the Afternoon is particularly smooth, 
with cutting on movements and elisions to extend the continuity of gesture 
and action. From the very opening, there is a constant alternation of per- 
spectives from synecdochic representation of the action to subjective views 
of what the protagonist sees, usually through the moving camera. Al- 
though the rhetorical figure synecdoche, the part for the whole, is an es- 
sential characteristic of all cinema, where the act of framing a picture can 
bring into play a potential field outside of the frame of which the filmic 
image is a small part (e.g., any close-up of a part of the body), I refer in 
this book to the deliberate and extreme use of framing portions of an 
action as synecdochic. For instance, in the first cycle of Meshes of the 
Afternoon, there is no establishing shot, no view of the whole figure in 
her environment; toward the middle of the film, as the situation takes on 
more symbolic dimensions, the camera tends to compensate by stasis and 
wider views. 

The transitions between cycles are subtly achieved. In the first transi- 
tion between waking and sleeping, the film uses the wavy shadow over 
both the eye and the window. That sequence is interrupted by a view of 
the original road, where the black figure is about to appear. But before it 
does, there is a dolly back from the window, now masked by a cylindrical 
pipe which emphasizes the transition. 

The division between the second and third cycles has the same fluidity. 
The first shots of the new cycle are cut in before the last of the old one is 
seen. In this case, after looking at the sleeper, the protagonist goes to the 
window to see herself running after the black figure. Even after she dis- 
appears around the bend and the pursuer begins to climb the stairs, we 
see another shot of the protagonist in the window, peering out, her hand 
pressed against the pane. 

When we compare the image of Maya Deren, framed by the window 
where the reflections of trees blend with the mass of her hair, with the 
parallel image of Pierre Batcheff, sadistically watching the androgyne and 
the dismembered hand from his window in Un Chien Andalou, one con- 
trast between the two films becomes clear. It is, in fact, a difference which 
obtains between the early American avant-garde "trance film" (as I will 
call this type of film in general) and its surrealistic precursors. In Meshes 
of the Afternoon, the heroine undertakes an interior quest. She encounters 


1 1 

objects and sights as if they were capable of revealing the erotic mystery 
of the self. The surrealistic cinema, on the other hand, depends upon the 
power of film to evoke a mad voyeurism and to imitate the very discon- 
tinuity, the horror, and the irrationality of the unconscious. Batcheff, leer- 
ing out of the window, is an icon of repressed sexual energy. Deren, with 
her hands lightly pressed against the window pane, embodies the reflective 
experience, which is emphasized by the consistent imagery of mirrors in 
the film. 

Meshes explicitly simulates the dream experience, first in the transition 
from waking to sleeping (the shadow covers the eye and the window at 
the end of the first cycle) and later in an ambiguous scene of waking. The 
film-makers have observed with accuracy the way in which the events and 
objects of the day become potent, then transfigured, in dreams as well as 
the way in which a dreamer may realize that she dreams and may dream 
that she wakes. They have telescoped the experience of an obsessive, re- 
current series of dreams into a single one by substituting variations on the 
original dream for what would conventionally be complete transitions of 
subject within a single dream. 

In the program notes for a screening of her complete works at the 
Bleecker Street Theater in i960, Maya Deren warned, as was her custom, 
against a psychoanalytical reading of this film: "The intent of this first 
film, as of the subsequent films, is to create a mythological experience. 
When it was made, however, there was no anticipation of the general 
audience and no experience of how the dominant cultural tendency toward 
personalized psychological interpretation could impede the understanding 
of the film." Within the film itself, the double ending mitigates against 
interpretation, showing the makers' preference for sustaining the dream- 
like ambivalence over the formal neatness of a rounded sleep. 

A comparison can be made between this film and Un Chien Andalou, 
while suspending any question of influence. The Deren-Hammid film con- 
sciously uses much of what was beyond the intention of Bunuel and Dali. 
Bunuel and Dali did not set out to create a film dream; the dream-like 
quality of their work derives from the strength of their sources, from the 
ferocity with which they dispelled the rational while keeping the structural 
components of narrative. They show us neither sleep nor waking, but sim- 
ply a disjunctive, athematic chain of situations with the same characters. 
The startling changes of place, the violence, the eroticism, the tactility, and 
above all the consistent use of surrealistic imagery, suggest the dream ex- 

Meshes of the Afternoon is not a surrealistic film. It was made possible 
through a Freudian insight into the processes of the surrealistic film- 
makers. Nor is it a Freudian film. Surrealism and Freud were the vehicles, 
either latent or conscious, behind the mechanics of the film. Thus some of 
its methods seem to derive from Un Chien Andalou. In the first place, both 
films have a "frame" and a double ending. In the case of the Dali-Bunuel 
film, the frame — the opening sequence of the eye slashing followed by the 



(a) The window as a repressive barrier in Dali and Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. 

(b) The window as a reflector of the self in Hammid and Deren's Meshes of the 

title "Eight Years Later" as if a causal flashforward were about to occur — 
diverts the narrative. The two endings — the beach scene, followed by the 
title "In the Spring" and a still of the two figures grotesquely buried in 
the sand — likewise confound our expectations. Deren and Hammid also 
made imaginative use of the convention of a frame. Had their film ended 
with the scene of the woman awakened by the man, that frame would 
have fulfilled the standard function of dividing imagination from actuality. 
But the continuation of the violence of the dream, and its dislocations, in 
the scene between man and woman, which is suggestive of waking, then 
lapsing back into sleep, changes the film's dimension by its affirmation of 
dream over actuality. 

Un Chien Andalou attempts to present us with a broken, violent, spa- 
tially and temporally unstable world, without final reference to a more 
conventional actuality. Meshes of the Afternoon, on the other hand, offers 
us an extended view of a mind in which there is a terrible ambivalence 
between stable actuality and subconscious violence. Many of the means of 
presenting this mind are the same as those of the earlier, more radical film. 
For instance, in Un Chien Andalou a door which we expect to open on a 
corridor opens on a windy beach, just as the broken glass from the mirror 
in Meshes falls not on the floor but on the lip of the ocean. In Un Chien 
Andalou, when the man is shot by a gun, he starts falling inside the apart- 
ment and ends in an open field with his hands clawing the back of a naked 
woman. The transition is smoothly made through the continuity of action. 
All through Meshes there is similar cutting on action across disjunctive 

In the original shooting script for Un Chien Andalou, the man who 
enters the house to chastise the protagonist is his double: 

At that instant the shot goes out of focus. The stranger 
moves in slow motion and we see that his features are identical 



to those of the first man. They are the same person, except that 
the stranger is younger, more full of pathos, rather like the man 
must have been many years earlier. 7 

In the actual production, this identity is obscure. They are not played by 
the same actor, though their similarity and the dream-like structure of their 
confrontation do suggest the idea of a double. 

This coincidence of the theme of the double can provide us with a 
clue to the real relationship between the two films. It is possible that nei- 
ther Hammid nor Deren had seen the Dali-Bunuel film before they made 
theirs. They could have seen it; and they could have read Dali's book, 
published just a year before Meshes, and learned of it indirectly. If she had 
seen it, Maya Deren does not mention it in her subsequent writings. In 
speaking of Surrealism she is not enthusiastic. However, in the construc- 
tion of the scene in which the stabbed face turns out to be a mirror, they 
pay homage, perhaps unknowingly, to a motif of the painter Rene Ma- 
gritte. In several of his paintings a broken window gapes out upon a void, 
while the illusory image that one had seen while looking through it lies 
shattered among the glass on the floor. 

In all likelihood Deren and Hammid were more conscious of the in- 
fluence, however indirect, of Orson Welles's then recent Citizen Kane, with 
its regular shifts of perspective, than of Un Cbien Andalou. But regardless 
of the question of influence, it is true that the mechanics of Un Chien 
Andalou and of Meshes result from a theoretical application of the prin- 
ciples of cinema to the experience of the dream. The theme of the double, 
an archetype in dreams, could find two completely different treatments in 
the two films, yet the abrupt changes of location, so common in dreams, 
have the same cinematic meaning for both sets of collaborators. 

The difference between the films is instructive. Un Chien Andalou is 
filled with metaphors — the eye and the moon, a drink shaker as a doorbell, 
the sea urchin, and underarm hair — but Meshes has none. Objects in the 
earlier film recur, especially the box of the clown figure, but without the 
symbolic dimensions of the knife, key, and flower in Meshes, which ac- 
cumulate their deadly charge through repeated use in slightly different cir- 

Finally, the space of the two films is quite different. Un Chien Andalou 
takes place in a deep space with axial co-ordinates in all four lateral di- 
rections and up and down. The virtual space behind doors and walls is 
much used, as in most surrealistic films. The space projected by Meshes of 
the Afternoon is more rounded and linear, less cubic than the earlier film. 
There is little movement into or out from the space of the images. Actors 
tend to move across the screen. There is a sense of depth only when the 
hand-held camera is moved in the subjective shots. 

The articulation of space in avant-garde films is often unconscious. 
The conscious decisions about movement, fixity of camera, choice of sets, 
imply an inflection of space that the film-maker is often unaware of. We 


The surrealistic shattered image: Hammid in Meshes of the Afternoon before and 
after the knifing of the mirror. 

can in fact often observe a common attitude toward space among film- 
makers who have deliberately tried to distinguish themselves from each 

A fluid linear space is just one characteristic that this particular film 
shares with many of the American films which were to follow it. Another 
is the evocation of the dream state. And a final characteristic of many 
avant-garde films from this period (most of them trance films as well) is 
the film-maker's use of herself or himself as a protagonist. There are many 
reasons for this, and they vary with the film-maker. Obviously, there is a 
strong autobiographical element in these films. But beyond that, if the film- 
maker has neither the ability to command amateur actors to do precisely 
what she or he wants nor the money to hire trained actors, it is logical 
that she attempt to play the role herself, thus completely eliminating the 
process of "directing." There is also another, more subtle reason which 
accounts for the number of self-acted films, particularly at the beginning 
of the avant-garde film movement in America: film becomes a process of 
self-realization. Many film-makers seem to have been unable to project the 
highly personal psychological drama that these films reveal into other char- 
acters' minds. They were realizing the themes of their films through making 
and acting them. These were true psycho-dramas. 

As psycho-drama, Meshes of the Afternoon is the inward explora- 
tion of both Deren and Hammid. The central theme of all the psycho- 
dramas that marked this stage of the American avant-garde cinema is the 
quest for sexual identity; in their film, unlike those that follow in this 
book, it is two people, the makers of the film, who participate in this 
quest. With the exception of the surrealistic film he Sang d'un Poete, 
which will be discussed in the next chapter, the avant-garde film of the 
twenties had no psycho-drama, even in a rudimentary form. The explo- 
sion of erotic and irrational imagery that we encounter in many of these 
earlier films evokes the raw quality of the dream itself, not the mediation 
of the dreamer. 



If we turn from the Dali-Bunuel collaboration to another, but some- 
what less successful, example of the period, Man Ray's Etoile de Mer 
(1928), based on a poem by Robert Desnos, there are a number of re- 
markable coincidences of imagery and structure between it and Meshes. 
Yet the same essential difference of orientation obtains. Etoile de Mer 
opens with the encounter of a man and a woman on a road. They go to 
the woman's apartment, where she strips and he immediately bids her 
adieu. Twice again in the course of this elliptical and highly disjunctive 
film, the same man and woman encounter each other at the same spot. 
The last meeting might even be a dream, since it immediately follows a 
scene of her going to sleep. 

Then consider the use of the image of the starfish in Man Ray's film. 
The hero first finds the glass-enclosed creature during his second meeting 
with the woman. Alone in his room, he contemplates it. Yet during two 
mysterious and completely unexplained scenes — one in which the woman 
mounts the stairs of her apartment brandishing a knife, another in which 
she steps barefoot from her bed onto the pages of a book — the starfish 
unexpectedly appears in the scene — on the staircase, and next to the bed — 
like the knife and the telephone of the Deren-Hammid film. 

Most of Etoile de Mer is photographed through a stippled glass, which 
distorts its imagery and flattens its space. In the use of this distortion we 
see the first major difference from Meshes. The transitions between dis- 
torted and normal views are not psychologically motivated. They appear 
random, in fact. In Meshes, as I pointed out, the wavy field of vision 
indicated the transition to sleep. Like Un Chien Andalou, Etoile de Mer 
is full of metaphors, many of which are introduced by the titles which 
Desnos wrote. They are deliberately jarring. After an allusion to "les dents 
des femmes" we see a shot of the heroine's legs, not her teeth. In the central 
section of Man Ray's film all action seems to disappear, in order to be 
replaced by a series of verbal and visual similes comparing the starfish to 
the lines on the palm of a hand, to glass, and to fire. Narrative itself seems 
to exist within Etoile de Mer only to be fractured or foiled. 8 

The central tradition of the American avant-garde film begins with a 
dream unfolded within shifting perspectives. Much of the subsequent his- 
tory of that tradition will move toward a metaphysics of cinematic per- 
spective itself. 

This page intentionally left blank 

itual and Nature 


dream, ritual, dance, and sexual metaphor 
abound in the avant-garde films made in 
America in the late 1940s and early 
1950s. For a time the dream generated a 
form of its own, occurring simultaneously 
in the films of several independent artists. 
I have called this the trance film. Its his- 
tory is an extension of the initial discus- 
sions of the American avant-garde film in 
Parker Tyler's book The Three Faces of 
the Film. 

In his captions to the illustrations for 
that volume, Tyler offers a brilliant and 
succinct analysis of the form and history 
of the genre. Under a still from Brakhage's 
Reflections on Black he writes: 

The chief imaginative trend among 
Experimental or avant-garde filmmak- 
ers is action as a dream and the actor 
as a somnambulist. This film shot em- 
ploys actual scratching on the reel to 
convey the magic of seeing while 
"dreaming awake"; the world in view 
becomes that of poetic action pure 
and simple: action without the 


restraints of single level consciousness, everyday reason, and so- 
called realism. 1 

Then, between stills from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Meshes of the 
Afternoon, he writes: 

Cesare, the Somnambulist of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, has 
been an arch symbol for subsequent avant-garde film-making, 
one of whose heroines is seen below. Art is the action which 
knits the passive dreamer, as it knits the passive spectator, to 
realms of experience beyond his conscious and unconscious con- 
trol. In such realms, wild excitement is often found by way of 
the movies. But rarely, except in avant-garde films, does the 
strict pulse of beauty govern the engines of "wild excitement." 2 

If Cesare is the archetypal protagonist of the trance film, then the form 
of Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poete is the model for its development. 
The trance film as it emerged in America has fairly strict boundaries. It 
deals with visionary experience. Its protagonists are somnambulists, 
priests, initiates of rituals, and the possessed, whose stylized movements 
the camera, with its slow and fast motions, can re-create so aptly. The 
protagonist wanders through a potent environment toward a climactic 
scene of self-realization. The stages of his progress are often marked by 
what he sees along his path rather than what he does. The landscapes, 
both natural and architectural, through which he passes are usually chosen 
with naive aesthetic considerations, and they often intensify the texture of 
the film to the point of emphasizing a specific line of symbolism. It is part 
of the nature of the trance that the protagonist remains isolated from what 
he confronts; no interaction of characters is possible in these films. This 
extremely linear form has several pure examples: Curtis Harrington's Frag- 
ment of Seeking (1946) and Picnic (1948), Gregory Markopoulos's Swain 
(1950), Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947), Stan Brakhage's The Way to 
Shadow Garden (1955), and Maya Deren's At Land (1944), her first film 
after Meshes of the Afternoon. The genre naturally has had many varia- 
tions, transformations, and mixed uses. These I will discuss later. 

At Land is the earliest of the pure American trance films. In it, the 
heroine, again played by Maya Deren, is washed out of the backward- 
rolling waves of the sea; she rises, crawls over logs and rocks until she 
finds herself in the middle of a banquet table, crawls down it without being 
noticed by the banqueters, and steals a chess figure from a board at the 
end of the table on which the pieces seem to move by themselves. The 
middle of the film records her pursuit of the chess man through other 
similar landscapes: beach, tree, rocks, and interiors. No one seems to no- 
tice her. At one point, she loses the chase and finds herself talking with a 
man who is constantly being replaced by other men. Then, finding another 
chess game in progress, she steals again. This time, as she flees with the 



chess man, she is watched by images of herself from the rocks, the beach, 
the banquet, and the tree. In a series of dramatic temporal ellipses, she 
disappears among sand dunes. 

Here is the classic trance film: the protagonist who passes invisibly 
among people; the dramatic landscapes; the climactic confrontation with 
one's self and one's past. Meshes of the Afternoon had some of these ele- 
ments, but its intricate, coiled form gave a more personal, less archetypal 
tone to its narrative. The form of At Land is completely open. The camera 
is generally static. This time Hella Heyman photographed and Maya Deren 
set up the compositions. The principle of the editing, whereby every scene 
seems magically continuous with the previous, must have been planned in 
advance. For instance, as the protagonist crawls from the dead tree to the 
banquet table, we see her head disappear beyond the top of the frame in 
one scene, and in the next, now in the banquet hall, it rises from the 
bottom of the frame. As she pulls herself up into the hall, we see a final 
shot of the tree as her dangling leg passes through the top of the frame. 
This kind of montage must be provided for in advance, and, in fact, is the 
basis of the structure of this film. 

In Meshes, Hammid and Deren had employed a number of montage 
illusions which created spatial elisions or temporal ellipses for the sake of 
the psychological reality which informed their vision. In At Land, Deren, 
now on her own, conceives from the beginning that the film should con- 
tinually use these figures of cinematography as formal or stylistic devices. 
Indeed, they are essential principles of her film. She says as much in a letter 
to James Card: 

Anyway, Meshes was the point of departure. There is a 
very, very short sequence in that film — right after the three im- 
ages of the girl sit around the table and draw the key until it 
comes up knife — when the girl with the knife rises from the ta- 
ble to go towards the self which is sleeping in the chair. As the 
girl with the knife rises, there is a close-up of her foot as she 
begins striding. The first step is in sand (with suggestion of sea 
behind), the second stride (cut in) is in grass, third is on pave- 
ment, and the fourth is on the rug, and then the camera cuts up 
to her head with the hand with the knife descending towards 
the sleeping girl. What I meant when I planned that four stride 
sequence was that you have to come a long way — from the very 
beginning of time — to kill yourself, like the first life emerging 
from the primeval waters. Those four strides, in my intention, 
span all time. Now, I don't think it gets all that across — it's a 
real big idea if you start thinking about it, and it happens so 
quickly that all you get is a suggestion of a strange kind of dis- 
tance traversed . . . which is all right, and as much as the film re- 
quired there. But the important thing for me is that, as I used to 
sit there and watch the film when it was projected for friends in 


those early days, that one short sequence always rang a bell or 
buzzed a buzzer in my head. It was like a crack letting the light 
of another world gleam through. I kept saying to myself, "The 
walls of this room are solid except right there. That leads to some- 
thing. There's a door there leading to something. I've got to get 
it open because through there I can go through to someplace in- 
stead of leaving here by the same way that I came in." 3 

Hammid remembers that the original conception of that scene in Meshes 
was specifically Maya Deren's. 

Nevertheless, in her first solo film she is still very much under the 
influence of her collaborator. The denouement, in which the protagonist 
is seen by images of herself, comes right out of the center of the earlier 
film, which may derive from Hammid's own first film. The fluid, rounded 
space of Meshes is echoed in the linear style of At Land, with its soft 
cutting on motion and illusory elisions. But the rich texture of interlocking 
alternations of subjective camera and synedochic framing of elaborate and 
dramatic pans, which Meshes owed to the creative involvement of Ham- 
mid, disappears here, as the photographer worked under the direction of 
the author-actress. 

Trance films in general, and At Land in particular, tend to resist spe- 
cific interpretation. In the case of At Land, one could point out the allu- 
sions to sexual encounter — the moustached man in bed, and the caressing 
of the girl's hair by the beach — or interpret the banquet scene in terms of 
the individual's resistance to the social organism, but it would be difficult 
to extend such an interpretation to all the actions of the film. 

Deren is a good critic of her own work when she writes in her notes 
for this film: 

The universe was once conceived almost as a vast preserve, 
landscaped for heroes, plotted to provide them the appropriate 
adventures. The rules were known and respected, the adversaries 
honorable, the oracles as articulate and as precise as the direc- 
tives of a six-lane parkway. Errors of weakness or vanity led, 
with measured momentum, to the tragedy which resolved every- 
thing. Today the rules are ambiguous, the adversary is concealed 
in aliases, the oracles broadcast a babble of contradictions. 

Adventure is no longer reserved for heroes and challengers. 
The universe itself imposes its challenges upon the meek and the 
brave indiscriminately. One does not so much act upon such a 
universe as re-act to its volatile variety. Struggling to preserve, in 
the midst of such relentless metamorphosis, a constancy of per- 
sonal identity. 4 

As Maya Deren began to move more confidently from writing to film, 
her interest in form became clearer. She has left us six films. In each one 


of them she explored a new formal option. I have already suggested that 
her interest in the overlapping of space and time arose as a result of the 
editing of Meshes of the Afternoon. That interest never flagged during her 
film career. In At Land she pursued an open-ended narrative form based 
on her initial discoveries. In her next film, A Study in Choreography for 
Camera (1945), she returned to her old interest in dance to make a com- 
pletely new kind of film. 

It is clear that even in the first two films her concern with dance was 
not suppressed. The plastic space of both films, which cutting on motion 
makes possible, is closely akin to the dancer's art of connecting motions. 

Even before her collaboration with Hammid on Meshes of the After- 
noon, she had spoken casually with dancers about recording ethnic dances 
on film. After the making of Meshes and her revelation that the space and 
time of film was a made space and time, a creative function and not a 
universal given, she was no longer interested in the camera as a simple 
recording device for the preservation of dances. A Study in Choreography 
for Camera was a dance film with equal participation by both arts. She 
subtitled it "Pas de Deux," referring to the one dancer and the one camera. 

She did not herself appear in this film. Since she had no formal train- 
ing, she enlisted the help of a dancer, Talley Beatty, as her one performer. 
The film they made is extraordinarily simple — a single gesture combining 
a run, a pirouette, and a leap. It lasts no more than three minutes. 

The opening shots recall the climax of At Land; in both instances she 
used one pan movement of the camera to encompass several temporal 
ellipses. It is as if she were panning through time as well as over space. At 
Land climaxes with one sweeping shot, actually made up of a series of 
carefully joined shots, of herself walking away over sand dunes. As the 
camera in its leftward motion sees each successive dune, she crosses over 
the top and disappears on the other side. Thus in the evocation of a very 
short time (the time of moving the camera on its tripod) we see the illusions 
of long periods of time, the walking between dunes having been elimi- 

Choreography begins with a circular pan in a clearing in the woods. 
In making the one circle the camera periodically passes the dancer; at each 
encounter he is further along in his slow, up-stretching movement. At the 
end of this camera movement, he extends his foot out of the frame and 
brings it down in a different place; this time, inside a room. The dance 
continues through rooms, woods, and the courtyard of a museum until he 
begins a pirouette, which changes, without a stopping of the camera, from 
very slow motion to very fast. Then he leaps, slowly, very slowly, floating 
through the air, in several rising, then several descending shots, to land in 
a speculative pose back in the wood clearing. 

The dance movement provides a continuity through a space that is 
severely telescoped and a time that is elongated. The film has a perfection 
which none of Maya Deren's other films ever achieved. 


There are two aspects of this film that deserve consideration. One is 
formal, concerning the emergence of a new way of composing films; the 
other is synthetic, concerning the possible use of dance in film, and more 
broadly the problem of prestylization, which Erwin Panofsky, in his essay 
"Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures" (1934), identified as the failure 
of all films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (his example) which use aes- 
thetic objects such as expressionistically painted sets or ballet movement 
instead of natural gestures and real scenes as raw material. 

Choreography for Camera forecasts the shift from narrative to ima- 
gistic structures within the avant-garde film movement. Before it, there had 
been several ways of putting together such films. Narrative had been the 
most common. By this I do not mean simple story-telling, but abstracted 
narrative forms such as Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, and 
the trance films. Thematic composition was another possibility: the city 
symphonies, usually describing a day in the life of a city; or tone poems 
about a season, a place, or a form of matter, such as Steiner's H 2 about 
water patterns. The sophisticated thematic structures were extended meta- 
phors — one thinks primarily of Leger's Le Ballet Mecanique, in which 
graphic abstraction, repetitive human actions, and machines in operation 
are synthesized into an image of a gigantic social supermachine. 

Maya Deren introduced the possibility of isolating a single gesture as 
a complete film form. In its concentrated distillation of both the narrative 
and the thematic principles, this form comes to resemble the movement in 
poetry called Imagism, and for this reason I have elsewhere called a film 
using this device an imagist film. 5 There I concentrated on pure examples 
and described the inevitable inflation of the simple gesture to contain more 
and more aesthetic matter. Kenneth Anger's Eaux d' Artifice, Charles Boul- 
tenhouse's Handwritten, and Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man: Part One 
provided the examples. 

In brief, all of these films describe a simple action like the leap of 
Choreography. In Anger's film it is the walk of a heroine through a ba- 
roque maze of fountains in pursuit of a flickering moth. Boultenhouse's 
film revolves around the slamming of a fist on a glass tabletop, and Brak- 
hage's describes a man climbing a mountain. Each example represents a 
progressive stage of inflation, whereby lateral or foreign material is intro- 
duced around the essential action without completely disrupting its unity 
or continuity. 

Maya Deren herself returned to the imagist film to make Meditation 
on Violence in 1948, and again just before she died when she conceived 
the idea of the haiku film. The structure of Meditation on Violence almost 
duplicates that of Choreography for Camera on a larger scale, with a 
proportionate loss of tension. Deren's own notes for the shooting of the 
film employ two parabolic arcs. Theoretically, the film describes in a single 
continuous movement three degrees of traditional Chinese boxing — Wu- 
tang, Shao-lin, and Shao-lin with a sword. A long sequence of the ballet- 
like, sinuous Wu-tang becomes the more erratic Shao-lin; then for two or 


2 3 

three minutes in the middle of the film there is an abrupt change to leaping 
sword movements, in the center of which, at the apogee of the leap, there 
is a long-held freeze-frame; finally we see the boxer move back through 
Shao-lin to the original Wu-tang. For each transition there is a change of 
background and filmic style. We see the Wu-tang against a curved, unbro- 
ken black wall; the Shao-lin takes place in a room with alternate black 
and white walls to emphasize its angularity. The montage, which had been 
very fluid with elided joining, becomes appropriately pronounced and an- 
gular. The sword play occurs outside, with jump cuts, slow motion, and 
the freeze-frame. The last portion of the film is printed in reverse motion, 
but the continuity of the movement disguises this from the spectator. 

So much for its abstract plan. In the notes for this film, Maya Deren 
makes some extravagant intellectual claims for it, which are interesting 
because the film fails to live up to them: 



The film consists not only of photographing these move- 
ments, but attempts an equivalent conversion, into filmic terms, 
of these metaphysical principles. The film begins in the middle 
of a movement and ends in the middle of a movement, so that 
the film is a period of vision upon life, with the life continuing 
before and after, into infinity. The rhythm of the negative- 
positive breathing is preserved in the rhythm at which the boxer 
approaches and recedes from the camera. Both the photography 
and the cutting of the Wu-Tang sections are deliberately smooth 
and flowing, so that no "striking" shots or abrupt cuts occur in 
these sections. This whole approach is further amplified in the 
diagram and notes. Moreover, it seemed significant that not only 
were these movements related to metaphysical principles (an in- 
ner concept) but that they were training movements — the self- 
contained idea of violence, not the actual act. Training is a 
physical meditation on violence. So, too, the film is a medita- 
tion. Its location is an inner space, not an outer place. And just 
as a meditation turns around an idea, goes forward, returns to 
examine it from another angle, so here the camera, in the wu- 
tang section, revolves around the movements of the figure, re- 
turns to some previous movement to examine it from another 
angle altogether, to achieve a "cubism in time." 

However, meditations investigate extremes, and life, while 
ongoing and non-climactic in the infinite sense, contains within 
it varieties and waves of intensity. So this film, as a meditation, 
proceeded beyond the wu-tang School, to examine where the 
shao-lin concepts of aggression would lead. This school, called 
"exterior," is based on exterior conditions of opportunity. Its 
emphasis is upon strength, impact, sudden rhythms, and the 
body is not treated as a whole. Rather, the sharp strength of the 
arms and legs is emphasized for independent action. The logical 
conclusion is to even implement this sharpness with a sword. 
And so, in the film, the increasing violence bursts into an exten- 
sion: the arm sprouts a sword. 

Even this is carried forward. The climax of this meditation 
on violence is a paralysis. From which point the return is a re- 
versal. The movements are actually photographed in reverse 
from this point on. 6 

Meditation on Violence, from a theoretical point of view, is a film over- 
loaded by its philosophical burden. 

Maya Deren's initial creative period extended from the completion of 
Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943 through the making of At Land, Cho- 
reography for Camera, and Ritual in Transfigured Time, the discussion of 
which I have postponed for a few pages — three years of almost uninter- 
rupted film production. At the end of that period she published a book of 



theory, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film, and left for Haiti, 
initially to make a film, but eventually to write her study of Haitian my- 
thology, Divine Horsemen. Meditation on Violence was the first film she 
completed after this period. It bears the full burden of her theoretical and 
philosophical thought in the intervening years. It suffers, as does her sub- 
sequent film, The Very Eye of Night, released after a silence of ten years, 
from excessive stylization, both intellectual and graphical. Yet her aspira- 
tion to use film to imitate the process of the mind was exalted and certainly 
has been felt by other film-makers within the American can avant-garde 

In her program notes she clarifies her attempt to represent mental pro- 
cesses cinematically: 

The camera can create dance, movement and action which tran- 
scend geography and take place anywhere and everywhere; it 
can also, as in this film, be the meditating mind turned inwards 
upon the idea of movement, and this idea, being an abstraction, 
takes place nowhere or, as it were, in the very center of space. 

There the inner eye meditates upon it at leisure, investigates 
its possibilities, considers first this aspect and angle, and that 
one, and once more reconsiders, as one might plumb and exam- 
ine an image or an idea, turning it over and over in one's mind. 7 

The spectator is confronted with something more restricted than this. 
There is the boxer, moving before a painfully artificial black wall; then 
comes a change of boxing style before an equally contrived, angular set of 
walls, and ultimately, in open space, the boxer is costumed and leaping 
with a sword. In Choreography for Camera, speed was the key to the unity 
and tension of the image. By elongating the action in Meditation on Vio- 
lence, the fusion of spaces, costumes, boxing modes, and cinematic styles 
dissolved; it fragmented into vague sections. In principle, such an elonga- 
tion is not impossible. We shall see later how Stan Brakhage successfully 
elongated the imagist film in Dog Star Man: Fart One without losing its 
essential tension. 

In Ritual in Transfigured Time, the film which immediately followed 
Choreography, Deren openly grappled with the problem of using dancers 
in a film. The result is her most complex film, and the one that most fully 
contains her achievements, her theories, and her failures. 

Formally, Ritual in Transfigured Time is a radical extension of the 
trance film in the direction of a more complex form. That form, the ar- 
chitectonic film, which was to emerge in the early 1960s after other am- 
bitious efforts, aspired toward myth and ritual. 

The pure trance film has a single protagonist — all other human figures 
being distinctly background elements — and a linear development. Ritual 
has two principal figures (although ultimately the film reduces itself to the 



initiation of a single persona, the female) and utilizes several others more 
dynamically than does the trance film. Despite the attempt at a continual 
and gradual movement from trance into dance, Ritual in Transfigured 
Time has three parts: an opening, a party, and a dance in the open air. 

The images of this film, unlike any of her others, evoke traditional 
interpretations. They are not so much symbolic as archetypal, drawn pri- 
marily from the visual vocabulary of ancient mythology. The images of 
Norns, of Fates, and of Graces adorn a film which, in its center, describes 
a sexual rite of passage. In her notes Maya Deren called this rite the pas- 
sage of the "widow into bride." 

Beyond the classic images, we see the same enigmatic, obsessive totems 
of her other films. The confrontation of the self takes a new form here. In 
Meshes of the Afternoon we saw, through a camera trick, three simulta- 
neous, juxtaposed images of the heroine in a single shot; in At Land, the 
editing of shots of her looking offscreen, followed by a shot of her in a 
different location as if filmed from the angle of vision of the previous 
glance, created the illusion of meeting with the self. Now, here, the self is 
composed of different bodies; their metamorphosis occurs through cutting 
on motion. The gesture begun by one is continued by the other. The result 
is an evocative ambivalence of identity and a sense of mysterious, perpetual 

The form of Ritual in Transfigured Time anticipates the even more 
complex architectonic films of Gregory Markopoulos and Stan Brakhage, 
in the early sixties, though it lacks their precision of proportions, and their 
overall evenness of execution. Because of her dedicated interest in form 
and her reluctance to repeat her previous achievements in that dimension, 
Deren tended to overextend her formal ambitions at times; as a result she 
came to cinematic forms earlier than she could handle them well. 

Thus her first four films (including Meshes of the Afternoon) rehearse 
in general outline the subsequent evolution of forms within the American 
avant-garde cinema over the following two decades. Her summary of her 
achievements in the letter to James Card, previously excerpted, takes on a 
prophetic tone: 

Meshes is, one might say, almost expressionist; it external- 
izes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the 
external one. At Land has little to do with the inner world of 
the protagonist, it externalizes the hidden dynamics of the exter- 
nal world, and here the drama results from the activity of the 
external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the 
life of a fish, to a concern with the sea which accounts for the 
character of the fish and its life. And Ritual pulls back even fur- 
ther, to a point of view from which the external world itself is 
but an element in the entire structure and scheme of meta- 
morphosis: the sea itself changes because of the larger changes 
of the earth. Ritual is about the nature and process of change. 



And just as Choreography was an effort to isolate and celebrate 
the principle of the power of movement, which was contained in 
At Land, so I made, after Ritual, the film, Meditation on Vio- 
lence, which tried to abstract the principle of ongoing meta- 
morphosis and change which was in Ritual. 8 

I will show in this book how the trance film gradually developed into 
the architectonic, mythopoeic film, with a corresponding shift from Freud- 
ian preoccupations to those of Jung; and then how the decline of the myth- 
ological film was attended by the simultaneous rise of both the diary and 
the structural film. The latter are extensions of the imagist form in the 
direction of visual haiku, epiphanies, and diaries. They are static, episte- 
mologically oriented films in which duration and structure determine, 
rather than follow, content. 

In the opening scene of Ritual in Transfigured Time, a woman, played 
by Maya Deren, stands in a double doorway. She passes from one of the 
two visible rooms into the other to get a scarf, then returns to the first 
room with a swatch of yarn. With her head she signals another woman, 
"the widow," in from the darkness. Like the first woman, the widow is 
dressed in black, but she is more mournful and she walks with her hand 
out before her like a somnambulist. She comes in and sits before her, 
making a ball from her yarn. The first woman, "the invoker," sings, 
laughs, and chants while she juggles the wool between her hands in grad- 
ually slower and slower motion. The widow, hypnotized and enchanted, 
continues to wind the wool in a ball. 

With another turn of her head the invoker indicates that a third 
woman has entered the room by yet another door. We can call her "the 
initiator" or "the guide." She beckons the widow while at the same time 
the invoker hieratically raises her arms, dropping the yarn and thus re- 
leasing her from the spell. When the widow looks back, the invoker's chair 
is empty. 

This opening episode is distinguished by compositions-in-depth of 
more sophistication than anywhere else in Maya Deren's films. A geomet- 
rical sense of the relative placement of the three women determines the 
editing sequence, which is accented by rapid alterations in the speed of 
recording, causing sudden shifts from slow to normal motion. The 
composition-in-depth and the handling of a large group of actors in the 
subsequent scene indicate an advance in Maya Deren's conception of cin- 
ematic form and in her powers as a director. 

The form of the opening passage is that of the trance film; slow motion 
was one of its chief cinematic means of expression. In the party scene, the 
trance is replaced by a collective choreomania, as the entire crowd moves 
again and again in a half-dozen repetitive patterns; they stop short, sus- 
pended in a frozen frame. The means of achieving this effect were simple. 
Maya Deren printed several copies of a few complex movements, showing 
the wanderings of the guide, the hesitant movements of the widow, and 



the pursuit of her by a young man, who presumably seeks to meet her. 
Then she simply repeated the very same shots at fixed intervals and punc- 
tuated them with the freezes. The result was the highly successful rendering 
of dance movement from elements outside the dance. It is this middle 
passage that makes one think that Maya Deren was openly trying to deal 
with the problem of the prestylization of dance in film, although she never 
acknowledged the problem as such in her writings. 

When the young man meets the widow — they literally "bump into one 
another" — the scene cuts away to an open field in which the performers 
are posed, faces just about touching, exactly as they were at the party. 
They occupy the same portion of the film frame. Thus the transition is 
sudden and clean, even though the young man is no longer fully dressed 
but bare-chested, and the widow now has bare legs and feet. 

Then they dance. Behind them three female figures from the party, 
resembling the Graces, dance before neo-classic columns. The guide is one 
of the Graces. The dance of the couple becomes one of flight and pursuit. 
As she runs, the widow turns into the invoker, then back again. In the 
transition there is a change of scarfs, from mourning black to bridal white. 

It is the widow again who enters a gate to find her pursuer transformed 
into a statue on a pedestal. In slow motion with several freeze frames he 
gradually comes to life, and after some instantaneous petrifications in mid- 
air, he leaps to the ground. As the pursuit continues, the heroine runs full 
speed, while the young man follows in graceful ballet leaps in slow motion. 
Physically, the situation of Meshes of the Afternoon is here reversed, as 
the fleeing runner cannot make gains on the slow-motion pursuer. 

They pass by the guide in their chase. Just as he reaches for her, there 
is a metamorphosis from widow to invoker, and she runs into the sea. As 
she sinks we see her in negative, her black gown now white while she 
changes again from invoker to widow, now prepared as a bride for the 
young man who has not followed her into the water. 

Ritual in Transfigured Time is Maya Deren's great effort at synthesis. 
There is, on the one hand, the transformation of somnambulistic move- 
ment to repetitive, cyclic movement; that is, to dance. There is also the 
fusion of traditional mythological elements — the Graces, Pygmalion, the 
Fates — with private psycho-drama (the film-maker herself plays the in- 
voker); and an attempt to present a complete ritual in terms of the camera 
techniques she had utilized in her earlier films — slow motion, freeze-frame, 
repetition of shots, and variations on continuity of identity and movement. 

Its precursor, Jean Cocteau's first film he Sang d'un Poete (1930), 
bridged a transition from an avant-garde cinema centered in Paris to one 
dominated by Americans. Of all the independent films from Europe this 
one had the most influence on those who would revive the avant-garde 
cinema toward the end of the Second World War. Two aspects of Cocteau's 
film give it this privileged position: its manifestly reflexive theme, and its 
ritual. The film opens with an allegory of the relationship of the authorial 
persona to the temporality of cinematic representation. We see Cocteau, 



surrounded by the klieg lights of a movie studio, blocking his face from 
the camera with a classical dramatic mask, which foreshadows the moment 
in the film when the film-maker will declare in a handwritten title that he 
is trapped in his own film; yet what we see of him then is still another 
mask, this time fashioned after his own profile. The declaration of the 
enigmatical distance between the authorial self and his mediating persona 
is coordinated with a bracketing device that affirms that the film transpires 
in no time, or in the instant between two photograms. We see a towering 
smokestack begin to crumble, an image reminiscent of many of the Lu- 
mieres' one-shot films. At the end of the film the smokestack completes its 
fall. By bracketing his film this way, Cocteau wants the viewer to under- 
stand that his mythic ritual occurs in "transfigured time." 

The events of he Sang d'un Poete bear a general resemblance to the 
trance film: a single hero, the poet, finds that the painted mouth he wiped 
from a canvas continues to live in his hand. It talks to him; it stimulates 
him sexually as he runs his hand along his body. Finally, with great effort, 
he transfers the mouth to a statue, which comes alive. The metamorphosis 
of statue into muse is attended by an alteration of the space in which it 
occurs; for in this process the door and window of the poet's chamber 
disappear. His sole exit is through the mirror. So he plunges into a realm 
of fantastic tableaux which seem to exist solely for his inner education. 

The Hotel des Folies Dramatiques, which the poet explores after 
crossing the threshold of the mirror, is a series of rooms, accessible only 
to sight through the keyhole. In each, a principle of cinematic illusionism 
is illustrated with the naive exuberance of Melies' films, which Cocteau 
must have first encountered in his childhood. The assassinated Mexican is 
revived in reverse motion; camera placement allows us to see a girl clinging 
to walls and ceiling; finally, a hermaphrodite is constructed of flesh, drawn 
lines, and a roto-relief in Duchamp's style so that it is not only an illu- 
sionary blending of male and female characteristics but a figure synthesized 
from the very arts which feed into cinematic representation. The myth of 
the poet that Cocteau elaborates moves freely among centuries and be- 
tween childhood and maturity. 

Back in the chamber, the poet destroys the statue and in so doing is 
changed into one himself. In the subsequent episode, a group of young stu- 
dents break up the statue to use as fatal ammunition in a snowball fight. 
Over the bleeding body of a slain student, the muse and the poet, both in the 
flesh, play a game of cards which culminates, again, in his suicide. 

Parker Tyler has pointed out, again in the captions to the illustrations 
of The Three Faces of the Film, the persistence of the motif of the statue 
within the avant-garde film tradition. Willard Maas, a contemporary of 
Maya Deren who began making films in 1943 with his wife Marie Menken 
and the poet George Barker (Geography of the Body), invoked this motif 
on a grand scale in his most ambitious project, Narcissus (1956). The hero, 
played by his collaborator Ben Moore, wanders in desolation through an 
outdoor corridor formed by two rows of busts of the Roman emperors. 


(a) The cinematic Pygmalion: The poet of Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poete 
leaves the statue-muse, (b) He peeps through a keyhole in the Hotel des folies 

Unlike Cocteau's or Maya Deren's statues, these do not come alive, yet in 
Maas's film their animation is potential, and the pathos of that fragment 
of the trance derives from the refusal of the statues to live and advise. 

Behind all the employments of the statue in the trance film, however 
obliquely, is the myth of Pygmalion. In his revival of that myth in the 
terms of a "magical" illusionism of cinema, Cocteau initiated a cinematic 
ritual that a whole generation of American film-makers felt sufficiently 
vital to restate in their own terms. 

The temporal ambiguity that Cocteau postulated between any two 
consecutive frames of a continuous shot operated independent of the cam- 
era which photographed that shot. In Maya Deren's reworking of that 
suspended temporality, account would be taken of the status of the camera 
in cinematic metaphors of reflection. She did not do this as Vertov had 
done and as many would begin to do in the 1960s by introducing the film- 
making apparatus into the imagery of the film. Her early, and best, films 
dwell instead upon the temporal and spatial complexities of representing 
the self in cinema. In Meshes of the Afternoon, the window, as a metaphor 
for cinematic representation, has neither the amorphous presence of Man 
Ray's distorting lens or the barrier quality of the window in Un Chien 
Andalou; it is, rather, a mirror. For Deren, and subsequently for most of 
the American independent film-makers who followed her, film-making was 
essentially a reflexive activity. 


Ritual in Transfigured Time was meant to be first of several cinematic 
investigations of ritual. In a request for a Guggenheim foundation grant, 
Maya Deren proposed a complex film correlating the ritual aspect of chil- 
dren's games with traditional rites as they survive in Bali and Haiti. She 
had enlisted the aid of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, whose ex- 
hibition and catalogue of South Seas ritual objects at the Museum of Mod- 
ern Art at that time influenced the conception of the film. In her request 
for the grant she appended the following chart of ritual parallels and wrote 
as an example for the project: 


The widow of Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time 
flees the living statue and "marries" the sea, drowning in 

When a child hopes to be given a bicycle for Christmas, it may 
resolve to walk all the way home from school without stepping 
on a crack in the sidewalk. Not only is the form of this little 
ritual completely unrelated to its objective, but that separateness 
may be frequently reinforced by secrecy: one of the conditions 
being that no one, and especially the parents, be aware of the 
performance. 9 

Under the title "Cinematics," she outlined some of the means of achieving 
her aim, which she had previously stated as "stating the almost fixed con- 
stancy of the idea of ritual action": 10 


(This column descends 
in degree from highly 
individual, animate 
identity to inanimate.) 

1. Displacement of 
performer's identity 
by another identity 
and the actions 
originate rather 
freely from the as- 
sumed character 

2. Representation of 
another identity, 
with action deriving 
either from the ac- 
tual performance or 
the mask identity 
or from a play be- 
tween them 

Bali and Haiti 

Haitian Possession 
Some Balinese 

Various masked 

Secular (games) 


Blind man's bluff, 


Playing house, 
engineer, etc. 





3. Identity, either orig- 
inal, displaced or 
represented, subor- 
dinated to relatively 
prescribed action 

4. Representational 
images (X is so and 

5. Manipulation of 
symbolizations (X 
stands for so and 


Pre-puberty Bali- 

nese trance 


Deity Images 

Cabalistic symbols 

and others 
Fetish objects 


Group games such 

as Farmer in the 





(Since the degree of skill is here often critical, the identity of the 
performer is either retained, or at most on an anonymous or 
collective level. Where it is greatly minimized, it overlaps with 
category three of the Identity Rituals.) (The specific work on 
Bali and Haiti in this connection still remains to be done.) 

Personal: Ordealistic; Un- 
defined maximum 

Failure to achieve pre- 
scribed degree repre- 
sents not only a failure 
of the form, but a criti- 
cal effect upon the 

Impersonal: maximum de- 
fined within reasonable 
limits of normal 

Haitian Ordeals 

Simple religious 

Follow the Leader 




In 1946 the Guggenheim Foundation granted her their first fellowship 
for work in creative motion pictures and she went to Haiti to film rituals 
and dances. That film was never finished. As late as 1954 she had written 
that she did not have sufficient footage for a documentary film about Hai- 
tian ritual. Presumably, the plan for the cross-sectional ritual film was 
quickly abandoned. While in Haiti, her career as a film-maker was radi- 
cally deflected. The film she planned to make became a book about Haitian 
cults, published as Divine Horsemen. 

In the preface to her book, she speaks of being "defeated" in her 
attempt to make the cross-sectional ritual film by the revelation of the 
mythic integrity of the Haitian cults: 


This disposition of the objects related to my original Haitian 
project — evidence that this book was written not because I 
had so intended but inspite of my intentions — is, to me, the 
most eloquent tribute to the irrefutable reality and impact of 
Voudoun mythology. I had begun as an artist, as one who 
would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art 
in the image of my creative integrity; I end by recording, as 
humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had 
forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipu- 
lations. 11 

At this time her initial productive spurt had exhausted itself. After 
returning from Haiti she considered still another ritual film, this time based 
upon athletic contests. In her search for the appropriate sport, she discov- 
ered Chinese boxing, and that inspiration was transformed into Meditation 
on Violence. Apparently she was not content with the film. By the middle 
of the 1950s she was "getting a real strong itch to re-edit it, shortening it, 
and this will improve it, I think." She never did. 

The film involving children's games and the initial conception of a 
ritualistic sports film give evidence of the success with which she regarded 
the central party episode of Ritual in Transfigured Time, in which she had 
raised familiar gestures to the level of ceremony. Throughout the fifties 
she continued to conceive of films which would choreograph skilled but 
familiar maneuvers. Each new subject entailed formal evolution. If the film 
of children's games combined with Balinese and Haitian rituals, even in 
its speculative form, represented another stage in the evolution of archi- 
tectonic form, then a film that she was planning to make in 1954 marks 
an advance over that. In a letter, she describes her idea of a film involving 
various circus acts: 

Each of the circus acts which occurred to me — the trapeze, the 
jugglers, the tumblers, the bare-back acts — is composed of sort 
of suspended time phrases. And the form as a whole of the 
film, which is beginning to emerge, is a kind of series of inter- 
locking time spans — a kind of necklace chain of time-phrases. 
For example, the tumblers begin their time phrase; about half- 
way through we are led to the juggler as he begins his time 
phrase; as the tumblers complete their time phrase we are al- 
ready in the middle of the juggler's phrase and, before he is 
finished, we have been started on the aerialists' phrase, which is 
already carrying us by the time the juggler finishes. Actually it 
would be constructed somewhat like a singing round, so that 
once the song is started, it never ends, being always carried for- 
ward by successive voices. The idea fascinated me as a concept 
of structure, and as being able somehow to convey the whole 
sense of timing which, as I had always felt, and as you re- 

3 6 


affirmed it, is absolutely basic to all of these activities. Filmically 
speaking, it means building the whole film in terms of staggered 
simultaneities. 12 

Here is the first clear hint of the form by which the architectonic or myth- 
opoeic film would emerge — through "staggered simultaneities" — for in the 
epic films of Markopoulous, Brakhage, and Harry Smith, the narrative 
pulse, which normally accents temporal development with climaxes and 
modulates its rhythm by creating scenic components, gives way to a sense 
of simultaneity, over which a broad narrative development may, or may 
not, occur. 

The ironies of Maya Deren's later career are almost tragic. Before her 
death in 1961, she completed only one more film, The Very Eye of Night. 
It does not aspire to the same formal innovations as the projected outlines 
from which I have quoted; her concern was with plastic development, 
conflict of scale, and dimensional illusion rather than with total structure. 

The most pointed irony concerns the circumstances of her death. At 
the turn of the decade she was living on a pittance from the Creative Film 
Foundation in return for her energetic work as its secretary (it was a one- 
person operation, with nominal officers) and on her husband Teiji Ito's 
income as an enlisted private in the army. Just before his discharge, the 
death of a relative raised hopes of an inheritance for Ito. After a disap- 
pointing meeting concerning this inheritance, Maya Deren came down 
with a terrific headache which led to a paralyzing seizure the next day. 
Within a week she had suffered her third cerebral hemorrhage and died 
after three days in a coma. Not long after that the elusive inheritance came 

She died before she could see the fruit of her work as an apologist 
and propagandist for the avant-garde film. Yet friends who remember her 
rages qualify this last irony; she might have found more to oppose than 
to acclaim in the explosion of film-making and theorizing of the 1960s. 

Nevertheless, despite some grievances and voodoo curses against her 
fellow avant-garde film-makers, Maya Deren worked hard to better the 
position of the independent film artist and to further the cause of what 
she called the "creative film" in general. That effort is an important aspect 
of the visionary tradition within the American avant-garde film. Not only 
have there been artists making films in the spiritual wake of Poe, Melville, 
Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson; there has been a movement among 
these artists to advance the cause of cinema in general. Such unions have 
been part of all the arts in this century. This is true, especially in the United 
States, where a literary tradition grew out of next to nothing in the last 
century and where a new tradition in the plastic arts was forged. Yet one 
would be at a loss to discover among painters or writers, dramatists or 
dancers, an effort as intense or as sustained as that made by independent 
film-makers for the security of their art. There are obvious reasons for this: 
the medium is very expensive; its aspirants were relatively few in number 



until the 1960s; and success in independent film-making is considerably 
less rewarded than in painting, writing, or drama. 

Maya Deren's vision of a better situation for the film-maker developed 
out of her experiences as a lecturer and theorist of the medium. In the 
latter capacity, she has left, in addition to the illuminating notes and ar- 
ticles on her completed films, a coherent body of theoretical writings. They 
include relatively technical essays for amateur trade publications — "Effi- 
cient or Effective," "Creating Movies with a New Dimension," "Creative 
Cutting," "Adventures in Creative Film Making," two widely circulated 
essays on the possibilities of the cinema, "Cinema as an Art Form" and 
"Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality," and a pamphlet, written 
as early as 1946 and published privately by the Alicat Book Shop in Yon- 
kers, New York, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film. Just before 
her death, she did a number of guest columns for Jonas Mekas in the 
Village Voice which assume a more critical than theoretical stance. The 
technical articles are essentially autobiographical and offer encouragement 
to amateurs without money or expensive equipment. They reaffirm the 
principles of the more general essays without amplifying them. 

The basic tenets of her theories can be simply stated. She takes for 
granted the indexical relationship between reality and the photographic 
image. In each of her three major articles she insists upon grounding the 
cinema in photographic realism. Perhaps her experience as a still photog- 
rapher (she did portraits for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and 
several art magazines) prejudiced her against photographic distortions. 

She analyzed the two functions of the film camera as "discovery" and 
"invention," the former referring to visions of space and time beyond the 
capabilities of the human eye, including telescopic or microscopic cine- 
matography on the one hand and slow motion, freeze-frame, or time lapse 
photography on the other. Among these methods she would continually 
admit her predilection for slow motion. As an instrument of "invention," 
the camera records imaginative constructs in reality and reconstructs them 
through the illusions of editing. She insists on the principle of recognition 
rather than graphic composition within the photographic image: 

In a photograph, then, we begin by recognizing a reality, and 
our attendant knowledges and attitudes are brought into play; 
only then does the aspect become meaningful in reference to it. 
The abstract shadow shape in a night scene is not understood at 
all until revealed and identified as a person; the bright red shape 
on a pale ground which might, in an abstract, graphic context, 
communicate a sense of gaiety, conveys something altogether 
different when recognized as a wound. As we watch a film, the 
continuous act of recognition in which we are involved is like a 
strip of memory unrolling beneath the images of the film itself, 
to form the invisible underlayer of an implicit double expo- 
sure. 13 



The elemental authority of the photographic image lends reality even to 
the most artificial events recorded by it. 

A series of lectures she gave at a Woodstock, New York, summer 
workshop in 1959 (she was beginning to work on her haiku-inspired film 
then) began with the polemical statement, "Art must be artificial." Her 
emphasis then, as always before, was on form. Twelve years earlier she 
had defined form: 

Art is distinguished from other human activities and expres- 
sion by this organic function of form in the projection of imagi- 
native experience into reality. This function of form is character- 
ized by two essential qualities: first, that it incorporates in itself 
the philosophy and emotions which relate to the experience 
which is being projected; and second, that it derives from the in- 
strument by which that projection is accomplished. 14 

She finds it highly significant that the age which produced the theory 
of relativity produced in the film camera an instrument capable of synthetic 
constructions across space and time. Speaking of "the twentieth century 
art form" in her last theoretical essay, she raises a concluding question 
and answers it: 

How can we justify the fact that it is the art instrument, 
among all that fraternity of twentieth-century inventions, which 
is still the least explored and exploited; and that it is the artist — 
of whom, traditionally, the culture expects the most prophetic 
and visionary statements — who is the most laggard in recogniz- 
ing that the formal and philosophical concepts of his age are im- 
plicit in the actual structure of his instrument and the techniques 
of his medium? 

If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full- 
fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that 
owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. In- 
stead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very 
nature of the instrument as to be inseparable from its means. 15 

Her major essays all take shape through a series of negative reductions; 
she rejects the graphic cinema and animation for their refusal to accept 
the reality of the photographic image and for their use of painterly forms 
in film; she criticizes the documentary for its exclusion of the imagination 
and its passive dependence on accidental phenomena; and she calls the 
narrative cinema to task for its imitation of literary modes. 

Nevertheless in each of these highly exclusionary essays, the dance 
creeps in as an acceptable part of cinematic synthesis. In "Cinema as an 
Art Form," she makes this parenthetical observation: 



(Dance, for example, which, of all art forms would seem to 
profit most by cinematic treatment, actually suffers miserably. 
The more successful it is as a theatrical expression, conceived in 
terms of a stable, stage-front audience, the more its carefully 
wrought choreographic patterns suffer from the restiveness of a 
camera which bobs about in the wings, onstage for a close-up, 
etc. . . . There is a potential filmic dance form, in which the cho- 
reography and movements would be designed, precisely, for the 
mobility and other attributes of the camera, but this, too, re- 
quires an independence from theatrical dance conceptions.) 16 

The longest and most interesting of her theoretical writings is the dens- 
est, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film. Even the form of the 
book reflects her obsession with structures; here she brings together her 
views on science, anthropology, metaphysics, and religion with the attacks 
on the conventional modes of film-making which I observed in her other 
writings. In trying to define an aesthetic and ethical worldview, she 
launches into an attack upon Surrealism, which she finds as deficient as 
realism in providing images of human consciousness. "Consciousness" is 
her key word in this essay, and she approaches it historically, claiming that 
a fundamental change in human mentality took place around the seven- 
teenth century. "In the course of displacing deity-consciousness as the mo- 
tive power of reality, by a concept of logical causation, man inevitably 
relocated himself in terms of the new scheme," she wrote in the opening 

The Surrealists, according to her, hark back to a world before this 
absolute change. 

Their "art" is dedicated to the manifestations of an organism 
which antecedes all consciousness. It is not even merely primitive; 
it is primeval. But even in this effort, man the scientist has, 
through the exercise of rational faculties, become more compe- 
tent than the modern artist. That which the sur-realists labor 
and sweat to achieve, and end by only simulating, can be ac- 
complished in full reality, by the atom bomb. 17 

She would have us bear in mind that the classicism of the early eigh- 
teenth century was a function of the shift from an absolute to a human 
ideal in the previous century. Furthermore she considers the psychological 
orientation and the cult of personality in contemporary art to be a degen- 
eration from this successful period. 

There is some discrepancy between her theory and her films. In the 
preface to the Anagram, she warns us of the danger of expecting a perfect 
continuity between them: 

In my case I have found it necessary, each time, to ignore 
any of my previous statements. After the first film was com- 



pleted, when someone asked me to define the principle which it 
embodied, I answered that the function of film, like that of 
other art forms, was to create experience — in this case a semi- 
psychological reality. But the actual creation of the second film 
caused me to subsequently answer a similar question with an en- 
tirely different emphasis. This time that reality must exploit the 
capacity of film to manipulate Time and Space. By the end of 
the third film, I had again shifted the emphasis — insisting this 
time on a filmically visual integrity, which would create a dra- 
matic necessity of itself, rather than be dependent upon or de- 
rive from an underlying dramatic development. Now, on the ba- 
sis of the fourth, I feel that all the other elements must be 
retained, but that special attention must be given to the creative 
possibilities of Time, and that the form as a whole should be rit- 
ualistic (as I define this later in the essay). I believe of course 
that some kind of development has taken place; and I feel that 
one symptom of the continuation of such a development would 
be that the actual creation of each film would not so much illus- 
trate previous conclusions as it would necessitate new ones — 
and thus the theory would remain dynamic and volatile. 18 

Her intense rejection of the cult of the personality, of the psychoanalytic 
approach to art, and of explicit symbolism ignores the privacy of the 
sources of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured 
Time. That intimacy, which her films share with the painting of their time, 
although they share little else, is to their credit. When she moved further 
from the powerful element of psycho-drama, in Meditation on Violence 
and much later in The Very Eye of Night, her art diminished. 
In the text she distinguished between imagery and symbolism: 

When an image induces a generalization and gives rise to an 
emotion or idea, it bears towards that emotion or idea the same 
relationship which an exemplary demonstration bears to some 
chemical principle; and that is entirely different from the rela- 
tionship between that principle and the written chemical formula 
by which it is symbolized. In the first case the principle func- 
tions actively; in the second case its action is symbolically de- 
scribed in lieu of the action itself. An understanding of this dis- 
tinction seems to me to be of primary importance. 19 

But she interpreted imagery very literally if she could describe the footsteps 
on water, grass, pavement, and rug of Meshes of the Afternoon in this 
way: "What I meant when I planned that four stride sequence was that 
you have to come a long way — from the very beginning of time — to kill 
yourself, like life first emerging from primeval waters." 20 



She makes an interesting connection between the quality of classical 
art and ritualistic form: 

The romantic and the sur-realist differ only in the degree of 
their naturalism. But between naturalism and the formal charac- 
ter of primitive, oriental and Greek art there is a vast ideological 
distance. For want of a better term which can refer to the qual- 
ity which the art forms of various civilizations have in common, 
I suggest the word ritualistic. I am profoundly aware of the dan- 
gers in the use of this term, and of the misunderstandings which 
may arise, but I fail, at the moment, to find a better word. Its 
primary weakness is that, in strictly anthropological usage, it re- 
fers to an activity of a primitive society which has certain spe- 
cific conditions: a ritual is anonymously evolved; it functions as 
an obligatory tradition; and finally, it has a specific magical pur- 
pose. None of these three conditions apply, for example, to 
Greek tragedy. 21 

The ritualistic form reflects also the conviction that such 
ideas are best advanced when they are abstracted from the im- 
mediate conditions of reality and incorporated into a contrived, 
created whole, stylized in terms of the utmost effectiveness. 22 

Above all, the ritualistic form treats the human being not as 
the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat deperson- 
alized element in a dramatic whole. 23 

In several other places Maya Deren refers to her art as "classical" and 
to her films as "classicist," yet there is little to justify this description in 
her works unless it is the conservative quality of the dance movements or 
the occasional references to Greek myth. 

Classicists looked on the arts of Greece and Rome as paradigms of 
logical and moral order. The revision of this perspective resulted from a 
late Romantic investigation of Greek irrationality, initiated by Friedrich 
Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1871), which 
affirmed the primitive and ritualistic elements in all the arts, using Greek 
tragedy as the pivotal example. In calling her art "classical," Maya Deren 
seems to have wanted to point out the chastening of Dionysian elements 
in her employment of ritual. She also seems to have perceived that the 
American art of her time in painting, poetry, and potentially in film was 
deeply committed to an elaboration of its Romantic origins. By calling 
herself a classicist she was trying to disassociate her work from the excess 
of that tendency. The disassociation was never complete, nor did she want 
it to be. What she could not know was that in its future evolution the 
American avant-garde film would plunge into a dialogue with the major 
issues of Romantic thought and art and that the mythic inwardness of her 
early films would be used as springboards for that plunge. 

This page intentionally left blank 

he Potted Psalm 


collaborations in the history of the radical 
cinema. Before Maya Deren and Alexan- 
der Hammid made Meshes of the After- 
noon, Dali and Bunuel had collaborated, 
as had James Sibley Watson and Melville 
Webber on The Fall of the House of Usher 
(1928) and Lot in Sodom (1933). Rene 
Clair, Francis Picabia, and Erik Satie 
joined forces to make Entr'Acte, which I 
shall discuss shortly. Film-making has 
been, and remains most often, a group ac- 
tivity, with specialized divisions of labor. 
It is not an extraordinary situation, then, 
when artists from other media, complain- 
ing of the poverty of imagination in exist- 
ing films, set out together to make a virgin 
attack on the cinema. And it often hap- 
pens that a writer or painter works with 
someone who already knows the mechan- 
ics of the camera and the editing machine. 

At the end of the Second World War, 
film was a potentially fertile field for 
American visionaries. Maya Deren had 
made her first films, although few people 
were aware of them until late in the forties 
when she had begun to lecture and the 



two great film societies, Cinema 16 in New York and Art in Cinema in 
San Francisco, had been formed and showed them. It was possible, how- 
ever, to see "the boiler plate of the Museum of Modern Art," as Sidney 
Peterson called the widely distributed prints of Potemkin, Un Chien An- 
dalou, Entr'Acte, Symphonie Diagonale, Rbythmus zi, and the numerous 
other classic films available from New York. These works opened up the 
area of cinema without establishing a constricting tradition for the artists 
who saw them. 

When Peterson himself began to make films, he was fully conscious 
of the strategies of Bunuel and Dali. He applied them to his own situa- 
tion. When he met the poet and playwright James Broughton, they 
agreed to collaborate on a play. They worked out an outline and began to 
write the dialogue together (it was to have been about John Sutter's old 
age) when the project shifted into film. The play and its ideas were aban- 

Peterson had shot some footage with a friend on a camping trip and 
had assembled it in his living room. This gave him sufficient knowledge 
of the mechanics to dare a more ambitious film. A discussion in Peterson's 
house one evening in 1946 initiated the film. Four people were there, in- 
cluding Broughton and Peterson. One owned a small film company, an- 
other had some money. They decided to begin a film rather than just talk 
about one. 

It was not long before the angel, unhappy in the role of sponsor, 
withdrew. The man with the film company lent equipment but stayed out 
of the project. With no money, they could only shoot one reel of film at 
a time. That meant one hundred feet — or about three minutes of film — 
during each session. Thus the shooting, spread out over three months, was 
highly discontinuous. That discontinuity was accented by the disappear- 
ance of the young man they had chosen as their protagonist. 

Unlike Maya Deren, Peterson and Broughton preferred to use their 
friends as actors in their first films, not themselves. In their choice of a 
leading player they followed a tactic of Un Chien Andalou by selecting a 
type who projected a quality of madness. Shortly after the completion of 
the Dali-Bunuel film, Pierre Batcheff killed himself; not too long after that, 
the leading lady also killed herself. In the case of The Potted Psalm, Harry 
Honig simply disappeared after one shooting session. The rest of the film 
had to deal with this contingency. 

From the reports of both creators, the collaboration went smoothly. 1 
Peterson operated the camera, and they both agreed on the choice of shots. 
When it came to the editing, they worked together "over one another's 
shoulders" according to Peterson. 

When the film was first shown during the initial season of Art in Cin- 
ema, Peterson wrote the following note: 

The Potted Psalm was shot during the summer of 1946. The 
original scenario and shooting script were discarded on the first 


day. Thereafter fresh scenarios and scripts were prepared at least 
once a week for a period of about three months. The surviving 
film was cut into 148 parts and the parts numbered — one to one 
forty-eight. The scenarios then read like stock market reports. 

This pullulation of literary material, finally taking a numeri- 
cal form, was deliberate. What was already literary had no need 
to become cinematic. The resulting procedure corresponded to 
the making of a sketch in which, after an enormous preliminary 
labor of simplification, the essential forms are developed in ac- 
cordance with the requirements of a specific medium. 

The necessary ambiguity of the specific image is the starting 
point. From a field of dry grass to the city, to the grave stone 
marked "Mother" and made specific by the accident ("objective 
hazard") of a crawling caterpillar, to the form of a spiral, thence 
to a tattered palm and a bust of a male on a tomb, the camera, 
after a series of movements parodic of the sign of the cross, fas- 
tens on the profile of a young man looking into a store window. 
All these scenes are susceptible of a dozen different interpreta- 
tions based on visual connections. The restatement of shapes 
serves the general purpose of increasing the meanings of the ini- 
tial statements. The connections may or may not be rational. In 
an intentionally realistic work the question of rationality is not a 
consideration. What is being stated has its roots in myth and 
strives through the chaos of commonplace data toward the kind 
of inconstant allegory which is the only substitute for myth in a 
world too lacking in such symbolic formulations. And the state- 
ment itself is at least as important as what is being stated. The 
quality, for example, of rectangularity in the maternal tomb is a 
primary consideration. Psychologically it constitutes a negation 
of the uterine principle. Aesthetically it derives its force from 
what has been called the geometric as opposed to the biologic 
spirit. The definition and unification of these opposing spirits is 
one of the functions of a visual work. Nor is it necessary for an 
audience to analyze these functions. It is enough to know that 
they exist. At least they may be presumed to exist. Having made 
the assumption, it is possible to go on from there. 

Unfortunately, where we go is by no means certain. The re- 
placement of observation by intuition in a work of art, of analy- 
sis by synthesis and of reality by symbolism, do not constitute a 
roadmap. It is perhaps wanting too much of art to expect it to 
perform the kinds of miracles ordinarily demanded of world 
statesmen. Not a roadmap possibly but the beginnings of a 
method. A method of statement, in a medium sufficiently fluid 
to resolve both the myth and the allegory in a complete affirma- 
tion. 2 

4 6 


By design and by necessity The Potted Psalm evolves disjunctively; the 
various women of the film (there are six in the credits) form a virtually 
continuous spectrum from innocent girl to savage old lady, but at any 
given moment of the film it is difficult to tell the middle figures apart; the 
mixture of motifs and styles, which in later films are typical of either Pe- 
terson or Broughton, makes it difficult to bring the film into focus as a 

The overall plan is quite straightforward; a graveyard episode is fol- 
lowed by an interior scene and ends again outdoors near the graveyard. 
Brief exterior scenes punctuate the middle sections. At times the film seems 
to proceed narratively, though with radical ellipses, and at times it seems 
to be a thematic construction, cutting away from narrative time. The 
themes of schizophrenia and the bifurcated male, in addition to being an 
obsession of Peterson's, fit the fact of the collaboration and its helter- 
skelter method. 

The film opens with a pan from deep weeds to a hilltop view of San 
Francisco. We are immediately confronted with a metaphor which deter- 
mines much of the movement and montage of the film. Ever since this film, 
San Francisco has inspired avant-garde film-makers to portray it as a par- 
adise of fools. Peterson himself, turned writer, spent a decade on a book 
about the philosophy and eccentricity of the city itself. 

From the weeds, the camera sweeps sideways over a grave marked 
"Mother" while a snail or caterpillar creeps one way as the camera moves 
in the opposite direction. The camera settles on the granite head of a man 
carved on a gravestone. A cut shows us the protagonist's face in a similar 
profile; his pimples are highlighted. His face twitches. Throughout this film 
almost everything else twitches — feet, thumbs, eyes — in a spasmic response 
to spastic construction. 

He stands before a shop. When he looks in the window he sees, amid 
collected junk, a nude female figure, the first indication of the theme of 
adolescent sexuality which pervades the film. Shortly he makes his way to 
a house which might be a madhouse or a bordello, or both. Inside he 
undergoes a metamorphosis into a headless man in a navy jacket. There 
he sees an old lady eating the leaves of a plant; when he lifts the skirt of 
another woman seated beside him, he finds she has a carved table leg; later 
both her legs are of flesh, but the foot of one is stuck in a glass beaker. 

Intercutting between this interior and the grave suggests that these 
madwomen or whores might be ghouls or that their house might open into 
the realm of death. Once he is inside, narrative causality disappears. The 
headless man pours a drink down his neck. In a closeup, someone picks 
at a plate of broken glass with a knife and fork. From the perspective of 
the subjective camera, a drink is drunk and a cigarette smoked as if the 
camera itself were consuming them. Other women appear and dance with 
the camera, which may stand in for the protagonist, and with a reflecting 
tube wearing a hat. One of the women kisses an anamorphic mirror. From 
that point onward, distorted and reflected images increase in frequency. 



The twitching, scratching, tongue flicking, and dancing accelerate as well. 
Eventually he flees from the house, and the semblance of narrative begins 

Violence dominates the next images. The mannequin is broken and 
bloody. The hero, at times headless and at times the pimply youth, takes 
up a knife, kicks away the dead carcass, and cuts through meat, but only 
a snail falls away. Now we are back at the scene of the film's opening, by 
"Mother's" grave. From here a woman runs away in slow motion. The 
camera follows her, superimposing several images of her flight. The speed 
changes from very slow to very fast. Then, when she passes over a hill, 
the film ends. 

In their subsequent films Peterson and Broughton draw heavily on the 
experience and material of The Potted Psalm, but with more successful 
formal organization. Perhaps that film, which was made on a lark, might 
have been its makers' last were it not for its success at the opening season 
of the Art in Cinema film society. As a result of the near riot at its opening, 
Douglas MacAgy, then the director of the California School of Fine Arts, 
conceived the idea of including avant-garde film-making in the curriculum 
of his school. 

At the end of the war the students of the art school, somewhat older 
than usual, tended to be more proficient than inspired. The film-making 
course offered more involvement in the experience of art-making. Peterson 
was hired to teach it. Each of the students paid a small fee for materials 
and to finance their collective film. Peterson used the situation with con- 
summate skill to pursue his film-making. The films he made between 1947 
and 1949, The Cage, The Petrified Dog, Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur, 
and The Lead Shoes were all workshop projects. In each of them the stu- 
dents acted, constructed sets, or supplied the basic themes. 

The evolution of the first of these films, The Cage (1947), shows the 
vicissitudes of the situation in which Peterson found himself, but also his 
ability to turn it into an aesthetic triumph. To begin with, he engaged his 
friend Hy Hirsch as a cameraman. Hirsch had not yet made any of his 
own films, but he had experience with a motion picture camera, access to 
equipment, and a sincere interest in the project. Peterson decided not to 
operate the camera himself because he had to lecture while he was in the 
process of making the film. 

Peterson's talent lies in synthesizing. He begins with a few themes and 
a few stylistic principles. The film then emerges spontaneously. He shoots 
with the idea in mind that the structural cohesion of film comes in the 
editing. Looking at the whole of his work, we can see how he challenges 
his own aesthetic by providing himself with radically different components 
to synthesize. This becomes more obvious in the later films. 

The Cage begins with a picaresque theme, the adventures of a loose 
eyeball. This was to be filmed "with every trick in the book and a few 
that weren't." He used all the camera times: slow, fast, normal, and re- 
verse. Superimposition and stop-motion disappearances are employed. To 

4 8 


these he added a few tricks of his own, such as a cut-out collage which 
moves to reveal the actual scene or the counterpoint of forward and back- 
ward motions (he filmed his actors running backward through a crowd 
and had the film reversed so the crowd runs backward and the actors 

He chose the student with the maddest expression as the protagonist. 
He could not have been very surprised, after the making of The Potted 
Psalm, when this schizophrenic-looking young man dropped out of school 
and deserted the film midway through shooting. Peterson employed the 
same tactic he had earlier: find a double and deflect the theme of the film. 
This time he could do it with more control. 

He already had a shot of the first young man sitting on a chair, bent 
over thinking, with a patch on his eye. He put his new hero in the same 
position and then he dissolved the two shots within the camera, so that 
one blends into the other. A concave anamorphic image shows the two 
fusing together (achieved by joining two different images at the point of 
maximal distortion so that the clear image of the first blurs, and out of 
the blur comes the second). When, later, the second man wears the patch, 
the transfer is complete. 

The construction of the film is so continuous that, unless told by the 
film-maker, the viewer could not guess that the film did not proceed com- 
pletely according to plan. In its final version The Cage describes the ad- 
ventures of a "mad" artist. In a symbolic or real self-mutilation, he takes 
out his own eye, which immediately escapes from his studio into an open 
field and then meanders through San Francisco. His blinding is accom- 
panied by complete schizophrenia. He alternates with his double through- 
out the film. 

His girlfriend, who is also his model, frightened by his mad groping 
around his studio for the lost eye, gets a doctor. The girl, the doctor, and 
one of the two protagonists then chase around the city after the eye. 
Throughout the film the perspective alternates between that of the pursuers 
and that of the eye itself. The eye's vision is filmed through an anamorphic 

The strategy of the doctor is to catch the eye and destroy it. To save 
the eye, the double continually has to thwart the doctor's attacks with 
darts and rifles. Eventually the eye is recovered, and the schizophrenic 
becomes the original young man. His first act as a reunited man is to knock 
out the doctor who otherwise would have ruined his recovery and, pre- 
sumably, taken the girl. 

In a deliberately parodic ending, the artist and girl walk off hand in 
hand. He embraces her in a field, and she flies out of his arms into a tree. 

As the comparison of outlines would suggest, The Cage develops much 
of the material rehearsed in The Potted Psalm. At times the imagery co- 
incides. We see a snail crawling over the eyeball, just as we had seen one 
repeatedly in the earlier film. In The Potted Psalm, the carcass, the eating 
of glass, and the cutting through meat function as visual jolts. They are 



reminiscent of the sliced eye in Un Cbien Andalou. In The Cage the tactile 
horror is greater, though still not on a level with the Dali-Bunuel film. 

The snail crawling over the eye; the eye rolling in the mouth of a 
sleeping man, or onto the hatpin of a shoplifter; the eye caught in a wet 
mop; these are all images that create a virtually tactile response. The most 
vivid of them, the hatpin, fuses horror and humor in the best surrealistic 

The Cage also has within it a mad "city symphony" of San Francisco 
as seen from the rolling eye. When Peterson eventually gave up film- 
making and concentrated on writing, he published his novel, A Fly in the 
Pigment, elaborating on the picaresque adventures of the eyeball in The 
Cage. In the novel a fly escapes from a Dutch flower painting in the Louvre 
and explores the human comedy of Paris before dying by being acciden- 
tally slammed between the pages of a book. 

The images and movements of the camera we see in The Cage are 
Peterson's. Hy Hirsch executed them well, kept the focus, and balanced 
the darks and lights. There is nothing in the dozen later Hirsch films like 
the camera work of The Cage; it recurs in all of Peterson's work. 

To begin with, there is the anamorphosis, the lateral and vertical dis- 
tortion of images emphasized by a twisting movement of the lens which 
shifts the axis of contraction and elongation. The distortions of The Potted 
Psalm seem to have been done with a mirror or a crude mask over the 
lens. With The Cage and thereafter, Peterson uses an optically distorting 
lens. The device is simple and had been attacked as too "easy," yet Peter- 
son used it more intelligently and creatively than any of the numerous 
other film-makers who have tried before and after him. In his films the 
anamorphic lens opens an Abstract Expressionist space. Even though 
structurally he related anamorphosis to various forms of madness, his dis- 
torting lens offers an alternative to haptic perspectives. 

In The Cage the distorted imagery clearly represents the perspective of 
the liberated eye. After the eye is dislodged, it remains for a while in the 
room. The protagonist chases after it while all the furniture flies over and 
at him in slow motion. Peterson skillfully pivots the camera in a circular 
movement. The flying furniture and the spinning camera are intercut and 
subvert our gravitational orientation. The episode ends, effectively, with a 
reverse motion shot of the flying furniture as the floor and the eye are 
mopped up. The illusion makes the fallen chairs, tables, easel, and so on 
return to their places through the action of the mop. 

Peterson attempted so many things that the film is much more inter- 
esting than it is successful. Yet where it is successful, as in the dialogue of 
perspectives and their spaces, it is breaking new ground for a subjectivist 
cinema. It is specifically his use of radical techniques as metaphors for 
perception and consciousness (which is intimately bound up with the Ro- 
mantic theme of the divided man) that elaborates upon Deren's central 
contribution and paves the way for future refinements of cinematic per- 
spective in the avant-grade. 



There is a section in the film where the dialectic is especially effective. 
Just after the eyeball floats out the window, there is a shot of the girl 
sleeping on the couch in the studio, fully dressed, with the doctor's foot 
by her head. The double of the hero lifts his patch and we see, presumably, 
what he perceives: his alter ego rushing through the streets of San Fran- 
cisco with a cage over his head. The people of the city all walk backwards; 
the cars too run backwards. Then the shot of the sleeping girl returns. 

This small episode attracts our attention because of its ambiguity. In 
the first place, it suggests a dream; what follows, or perhaps the whole 
film, might be the vision of the girl's afternoon sleep, as in Meshes of the 
Afternoon. Then, within the dream, comes the set of shots which suggests 
that the episode is the interior reflection of the double. 

The bird cage which gives the film its title appears first just after the dis- 
solve connecting the double protagonist. The first is wearing it over his head. 
From then on, until he is made whole again and his caged self is buried in the 
sand on a beach (reverse motion), he wears it as a symbol of his schizophre- 
nia. Obviously these scenes were shot before the theme of the alter ego en- 
tered the film, since it is the actor who disappeared who wears the cage. The 
specific use of the symbolism is simply a result of the film's ultimate con- 
struction. Here then is the clearest example of the process of film creation 
that Peterson described in his note to The Potted Psalm. 

The second appearance of the cage comes at the end of a wild camera 
movement during the first scramble after the rolling eye when the cage 
lands on the head of a statue, that persistent archetype of the early avant- 
garde film. The statue emerges in the most ambitious subjectivist films as 
a desperate surrogate for basic human needs. 

A discussion of The Cage would not be complete without referring to 
Entr'Acte (1924), the exemplary film of the Dada movement. Entr'Acte 
stands in the same relationship to The Potted Psalm and The Cage as Un 
Chien Andalou does to Meshes of the Afternoon. Its conception resembles 
that of Peterson's collaboration with Broughton; as a finished film, it is 
more like his first solitary exercise. The ways that they differ point up the 
differences between the American avant-garde film of the 1940s and the 
French of the 1920s. 

Entr'Acte was made to be shown between the acts of a ballet, called 
Reldche, or No Show Today. The negative titling was the work of Francis 
Picabia, the Dadaist painter, who wrote the film scenario and made the 
sets for the ballet itself; Erik Satie provided music for both. When he de- 
cided that the performance should have a filmed curtain raiser and a movie 
intermission, the task of production was given to Rene Clair. 

Clair modestly describes the circumstances: "When I met him he ex- 
plained to me that he wanted to show a film between the two acts of his 
ballet, as had been done, before 19 14, during the intermissions of cafe 
concerts. And since I was the only one in the house involved with the 
cinema, I was called upon." 3 There is no reason to doubt him. For Picabia 
the film was a casual affair. He jotted down the most schematic of see- 



The cage as an icon of the discontinuity of the self: Sidney Peterson's 
The Cage; Anais Nin in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure 

narios on stationery from Maxim's. One can imagine him writing as he 
finished his coffee: 

At the rising of the curtain: cannon charges in slow motion per- 
formed by Satie and Picabia; the shot will have to make as 
much noise as possible. Length: 1 minute. 


During the intermission: 

1. Boxing assault by white gloves, on black screen: length 15 
seconds. Written slide for explanation: 10 seconds. 

2. Chess game between Duchamp and Man Ray. Waterspout 
maneuvered by Picabia sweeps over the game: length 30 sec- 

3. Juggler and Pere Lacolique: length 30 seconds. 

4. Hunter shooting at the egg of an ostrich on waterspout; a 
dove comes out of the egg and lands on the hunter's head; a 
second hunter shooting at it (the head) kills the first hunter: 
he falls, the bird flies away: length 1 minute. Written slide 20 

5. 21 persons lying on their backs, showing the bottom of their 
feet, 10 seconds, handwritten slide 15 seconds. 

6. Female dancer on transparent glass filmed from underneath: 
length 1 minute, written slide, 5 seconds. 

7. Blowing up of balloons and rubber screens, on which figures 
will be drawn along with inscriptions: length 35 seconds. 

8. A funeral: hearse drawn by a camel, etc., length 6 minutes, 
written slide 1 minute. 4 

Satie was more meticulous; he pressed Clair for a shot by shot breakdown 
of the finished film, with timing, so that he could carefully synchronize a 
score for it. This was before sound projection, and the orchestra of the 
ballet played along with the film. 

Clair had a free hand. The artists named in the scenario all played 
their parts. He omitted the third and fifth sections, and freely improvised 
on the sixth and eighth. 

Two years after the ballet, Entr'Acte went into distribution without 
sound and with the curtain raiser attached to the front of the film as a 
prologue. That was how Peterson and Broughton first saw it. In this form 
the film opens with a cannon moving by itself around the roof of a building 
in Paris. In slow motion, Satie and Picabia leap into the frame. They dis- 
cuss a plan, which at first shocks Picabia, but he soon agrees to fire the 
cannon into the buildings where Satie has pointed. They do it. Then they 
fire it in the direction of the camera and audience. 

A series of superimpositions establishes the roofs of Paris, while images 
of balloon dolls being inflated and a ballerina, seen from below dancing 
on a glass floor, are intercut. 

The flames of matches dance in superimposition in the hair of a man 
whose face cannot be seen. He scratches his head, then lifts it, revealing 
surprised eyes. Repeatedly throughout this scene and through most of the 
film we see glimpses of the ballerina, until a change of camera angle even- 
tually reveals her not to be a ballerina at all, but a bearded man dressed 
as one. 



An offscreen jet of water ruins a game of checkers, played by Marcel 
Duchamp and Man Ray. Then, after a series of superimpositions involving 
water, a paper boat, and the pseudo-ballerina, we see an ostrich egg held 
in the air by a vertical jet of water. A hunter spots it, but every time he 
lifts his rifle, the egg multiplies into two, four, eleven dancing eggs. Finally 
it becomes singular again, and he fires. To his happy surprise a pigeon 
falls from the sky and lands on his head. 

Picabia, on a nearby roof with a rifle, has spotted the hunter with the 
pigeon on his head. He tries to shoot the bird off, but he kills the man 
instead. The scene jumps to his funeral. Yet the water still holds up the 
egg and the dancer dances. A ridiculous burial procession is led by a camel- 
drawn hearse. As they pass an amusement park the hearse comes loose 
and the whole party, including the widow and numerous old men, chase 
after it. As the hearse picks up speed, the camera movements become 
wilder and scenes from a roller-coaster are intercut with the chase. 

Eventually the coffin flies off the hearse, rolls through a field, and pops 
open. Out comes a stage magician. With his magic wand he makes the 
assembled mourners disappear; then he performs the same trick on himself. 

When the title "Fin" appears, a man jumps through the paper upon 
which it is written; then the shot is reversed so that he leaps back, the 
paper mends its rip, and the film ends. 

In its round-about manner of narrative, its slapstick chase, its exploi- 
tation of camera tricks both as metaphors and as developments of the 
"plot," and the comic violence of its shooting scenes, Entr'Acte prefigures 
The Cage. It anticipates The Potted Psalm, on the other hand, with re- 
peated interruptions of the picaresque development by fragments of con- 
tinuous scenes which bear no direct relation to the main chain of events. 
Behind all three films, of course, lies the comedy style of Max Sennett. 

The differences among Entr'Acte, The Potted Psalm, The Cage, and 
the slapstick comedy are more interesting than their similarities. The avant- 
garde films which owe their inspiration, in part at least, to slapstick com- 
edy tend to exhibit a shift of rhythm away from comic punctuation (for 
the humor of the great film comedians is a rhythmic function) toward the 
abstract. This displacement reveals the irrationality and the unconscious 
dynamic behind the previously funny archetype, the chase. In an effective 
silent comedy there is no time for metaphors. The comic film-maker can 
only deviate from the main line of comic action when the point to which 
he deviates extends the humor by prolonging it. The periodic recurrences 
of the pseudo-ballerina in Clair's film relieve the tension of the funeral 

Yet when we compare Entr'Acte with either The Potted Psalm or The 
Cage, it seems a much more comical film. Satire was the film-makers' 
inspiration. Remember the circumstances which motivated its creation: the 
bearded ballerina mocks the expectation of a ballet audience, and the 
members of the funeral procession mock the audience itself. In the pro- 



logue and in the murder of the hunter, Picabia and Satie flippantly disre- 
gard the most potent taboo of modern times — murder for its own sake. 
In the same spirit of provocation, Satie had announced that his music for 
the ballet would be "pornographic." 

In The Potted Psalm and The Cage, the slapstick sources are at a 
greater remove. Everything moves in an aesthetic direction. The film- 
makers of the 1940s in America, unlike their Parisian predecessors, were 
not mocking the sacred cows of the bourgeoisie. The Second World War 
had obliterated much of what Picabia was attacking. In the films Peterson 
made, either as collaborator or sole maker, what had previously been so- 
cial is made aesthetic. 

Broughton, however, had a more classically comic sensibility. While 
Peterson's humor resided in his sense of the irrational and in the collision 
of ideas, Broughton's focused on character. The childlike man is Brough- 
ton's favorite metaphor. "Mother's" grave, the bordello aroma of the in- 
terior scenes, and a shot of the hero on a kiddymobile must surely have 
been among Broughton's contributions to The Potted Psalm. 

In an interview with the author Peterson remembered how Broughton 
used to roar with laughter at the rushes of the film, while he was, if any- 
thing, disappointed. But when the editing was completed it was Peterson 
who felt the magic of the whole, while Broughton was apprehensive. Pe- 
terson was the synthesizing Surrealist; Broughton, the comedian of arche- 
types. His humor turned on the universal rather than the peculiar; the 
emblem he took for himself, and wore on a stickpin, is the alchemical sign 
for essence. 

In 1948 Broughton made his first film by himself. He employed a 
cameraman (in this case, Frank Stauffacher) as he did on almost all his 
subsequent films. Broughton's experience, aside from The Potted Psalm, 
had been as a poet and playwright. It is out of his early plays and poems 
that the theme of this first film, Mother's Day, emerged. 

His own notes are an articulate introduction to the film: 

From the beginning I accepted the camera's sharply accurate 
eye as a value rather than a limitation. The camera's challenge 
to the poet is that his images must be as definite as possible: the 
magic of his persons, landscapes, and actions occurring in an 
apparent reality. At this point something approaching choreog- 
raphy must enter in: the finding of meaningful gesture and 
movement. And from the beginning I decided to make things 
happen head on, happen within the frame, without vagueness, 
without camera trickery — so that it would be how the scenes 
were made to happen in front of the lens, and then how they 
were organized in the montage, that would evoke the world I 
wanted to explore. 

The subject matter of Mother's Day cannot, certainly, be 
considered specialized. Most of us have had some experience of 


childhood, either by participation or by observation. But do we 
remember that children are often incomprehensibly terror- 
stricken, are always ready to slip over into some private nonsense- 
ritual, or into behavior based upon their misconception of the 
adult world? Furthermore, what about the "childish behavior" 
of grown-ups, their refusal to relinquish childhood misconcep- 
tions, or to confront the world they inhabit? 

Although this film is, then, by its very nature, a nostalgic 
comedy, it eschews chronological accuracy in either the period 
details or the dramatic events. It has been one of the cliches of 
cinema since the days of cubism that the medium allows the art- 
ist to manipulate time: to cut it up, retard or accelerate it, and 
so forth. In Mother's Day historical time may be said to stand 
still. Periods and fashions are gently scrambled. The device is de- 
liberate: for with this film we are in the country of emotional 
memory, where everything may happen simultaneously. 

This is because the basic point of vision of the film is that 
of an adult remembering the past (and the past within the past): 
projecting himself back as he is now, and seeing his family and 
his playmates at his present age-level, regarding them with adult 
feelings and knowledge, and even projecting them forward into 
his present-day concerns. 

In Mother's Day I deliberately used adults acting as chil- 
dren, to evoke the sense of projecting oneself as an adult back 
into memory, to suggest the impossible borderline between when 
one is child and when one is grown-up, and to implicate Mother 
in the world of the child fantasies as being, perhaps, the biggest 
child of them all — since she, in this case, has never freed herself 
from narcissistic daydreams. 

Since this is a film about mothers and children, about fami- 
lies and forms of social experience, it is dominated by the circle, 
and — as Parker Tyler pointed out — by the object revolving on a 
fixed axis. 5 

A series of six ironic subtitles divide the sections of the film. It opens 
with a young man sleeping in the arms of a statue, an evocation of the 
opening of Chaplin's City Lights, and another instance of this ubiquitous 
motif in the early American avant-garde film. Then we read "Mother was 
the loveliest woman in the world. And Mother wanted everything to be 
lovely." A number of brief, enigmatic shots follow in what the film-maker 
calls a "formal prelude." 

This basically abstract passage introduces a number of typical elements 
in the film without explicitly delineating the main ironic structure. The 
impression of an animated family album, heightened by the nostalgic music 
of Howard Brubeck, written for the film, is immediately apparent. In this 
brief passage, the mother has at least four changes of costume. In the 



remainder of the film there is a minor or major change of this sort in 
nearly every one of her appearances on the screen. These changes involve 
an intentional mixture of periods and styles. At one point in the prologue 
gauze in front of the camera modifies the image. 

The effect of the alternations of costume, the short shots, the occa- 
sionally unusual angles, and the gauze is to create a scintillating image 
which seems to weave randomly through time. The music, the rhythmic 
intercutting between images, and the concentric movements within the 
frame — such as the spinning medallion — give a fluid cast to the continuous 
metamorphosis. The dialectic of tensions, the smooth rhythm, and the stac- 
cato imagery make for formal strength which is reinforced by a play on 
scale and foreshortening related to the dominant themes of the film. The 
montage in the ruins of the building uses depth and angles to suggest the 
dominance of the female over the male. 

In the next section, entitled "Mother always said she could have had 
her pick," foreshortening makes the same statement. We see Mother at 
her upstairs window, shot from below to magnify her stature. Her suitors, 
filmed from high above, are diminished by the perspective of the camera. 

The first shot of this episode is as brilliant an example of both meta- 
phor and ellipsis as can be found anywhere in the avant-garde film. The 
camera pans up the stairs of a wooden house to its facade, at which mo- 
ment we see that the house has been destroyed. There is only the facade. 
Next we see Mother smiling from the second-story window of a different 
house. The montage simultaneously suggests that Mother's house is now 
destroyed (in other words, the ruin is proleptic), and that Mother herself 
is a facade (a visual metaphor). This is a rather simple example of cine- 
matic prolepsis. In its more radical employment by Broughton in Dream- 
wood and by Brakhage and Markopoulos in several films, a shot may first 
seem to function in a simple relationship to the previous shots and only 
later, sometimes much later, is it grounded in a context more appropriate 
to its manifold aspects. 

Broughton constructed the entire episode around the image of Mother 
scanning her suitors from the window. In each of her appearances, as I 
have mentioned, she changes a hat, an ornament, or her dress. The use of 
ellipsis is extreme and highly original. First, one suitor presents himself. 
We see mother from below; when the camera cuts back to the suitor, there 
are now two of them, holding gifts. The exchange continues until there 
are four. At the end of the sequence, there is a man in her room. 

With the changes of shots in the interior scenes, there are changes of 
background comparable to the alternation of costumes. The sets them- 
selves are in the theatrical tradition: screens, plants, pictures on the walls; 
a minimum of objects and furniture necessary to give the impression of a 
cluttered, turn-of-the-century interior. The basically static camera creates 
a sense of composition-in-depth out of these stage backgrounds. Mirrors 
are frequently used. In the third episode, "And she picked father," we see 
the bearded father for the first time, reflected in an oval hand mirror into 



which Mother had been looking as she combed her hair. He is next seen, 
with his eyes bulging, posed in a frame on the wall as if he were a portrait. 

The image, at the end of that section, of her playing with a doll in- 
troduces the next part, "Then Mother always said she wanted little boys 
and girls to be lovely." We see her children. Although they are grown up, 
they play the games of children. In this and the remaining two sections of 
the film, the concentration on Mother is gradually replaced by that on the 
children. The progress of their games involves disguised rituals of the pas- 
sage into adolescence. At the same time, their satiric mimicry of their par- 
ents reflects the adult world. As Broughton pointed out in the note I have 
quoted, the use of adults to play children is not solely ironic; it recreates 
the psychological superimposition of the past and childhood upon the 

In their games, each "child" plays alone, though several may appear 
simultaneously in a single shot. One waves her dolls; another devours a 
box of candies; another chalks a naked lady on the wall. They tease, fight, 
and cry. While they play, Mother stays at her dressing table, and the fa- 
ther, with his straw hat on his knee, watches them impatiently, tapping 
with his cane. The elements of this section are held together by a strong 
internal rhythm created by the tapping cane, the moving swings, a bowling 
pin rolling in water, and hopscotch steps — all in time with each other and 
with the music. 

The thought or sight of the children makes Mother envision her old 
age. In the first shot of the next episode, "Because ladies and gentlemen 
were the loveliest thing in the world," we see the face of an old lady who 
whispers to a man, so that the children cannot hear. But they have their 
own party. We see a homely girl sitting on a couch with a man. Another 
girl enters the room. Then we see the first one on the same couch with 
two men. The very same entrance shot is repeated four times. In each 
instance another man joins the girl on the couch. Thus the children use a 
parody of Mother's courtship for their own sexual initiation. 

The sixth and final title, "And so we learned how to be lovely too," 
completes the ironic definition of loveliness. In a series of flashes, six 
bowls, each larger than the previous one, appear on the screen with a tape- 
measure indicating their diameters. Like the spinning medallion, and later 
the spinning mandolin, they are hermetic images. These can be taken as 
metaphors for growth, to be sure; their function in the film is primarily 
irrational, rhythmic, and textural. They recall a sequence in The Potted 
Psalm, in which a nut is cracked and bread is broken in rapid succession. 
The sudden and unexplained deployment of a series of close-up details 
enriches the texture of Mother's Day by intensifying its unpredictability. 

The last episode begins when Mother leaves the house for a ride in an 
antique car. The children symbolically take over the house. A girl tries on 
her mother's hats; a boy, his father's. The straw hat is destroyed. They 
pull off the father's beard. Out of a window fly the straw hat and the cane. 
Finally we see the living portrait of the father, only now upside-down. The 



mother, seen as usual at her mirror, is "left behind in a empty room, still 
dressed to go out but with nowhere to go" (Broughton's note). 

The inventiveness of Mother's Day has had no imitators and therefore 
little influence on the subsequent development of the avant-garde film in 
America. It remains a unique cinematic object without predecessors or 
heirs. Simpler films by Broughton, with less radical formal ambitions, have 
had more influence; Christopher MacLaine, in The End, made a black 
version of Four in the Afternoon, and Ron Rice extended Loony Tom, the 
Happy Lover into The Flower Thief, though neither were aware that they 
were so close to Broughton. Broughton's intense interest in comic types 
turned his film away from the trance film inspirations in a way that neither 
he nor his critics could see at the time. The trance film was predicated 
upon the transparency of the somnambulistic protagonist within the dream 
landscape. The perspective of the camera, inflected by montage, directly 
imitated his consciousness. Broughton invested too much in the individu- 
ality of his protagonists and too little in the cinematic representation of 
perception to contribute substantially to the trance film. It was only much 
later with the making of Dreamwood (1971) that the debts to Cocteau 
and Deren, which he had always readily acknowledged, surfaced visibly 
in his work. Even when he touched upon psycho-drama by playing the 
chief role in his second film, a version of the quest for sexual self-discovery 
so central to the early American avant-garde film, he saw himself with 
such irony, and so clearly as a psychological type, that The Adventures of 
]immy (1950) is as far from Fireworks, Swain, or Flesh of Morning — the 
psycho-dramas of Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, and Stan Brak- 
hage — as Mother's Day was from The Cage or Deren's films. 

The Adventures of Jimmy is an autobiographical picaresque in which 
a mountain boy looks for companionship in the big city. The episodes are 
highly elliptical. Jimmy climbs into a canoe on a small stream in one shot 
and finds himself in a busy bay in the next; he wanders into a boarding 
house looking for a room and is followed by a prostitute, only to rush out 
and away, comically horrified, an instant later. In rapid succession he seeks 
love in an artist's rendezvous, a dance hall, and a Turkish bath; he tries 
religion and psychoanalysis. 

With every episode he changes his hat, from farmer's cap, to sailor's 
crew, to underworld fedora, to a ceremonial top hat. The last is the em- 
blem of his final solution, marriage, as he walks out of church with his 

The irony, the ellipses, the symbolic changes of costume, that we found 
in Mother's Day, recur here. Yet they are less ironical, less elliptical, and 
the transformations not as radical. But above all, the difference between 
the two films lies in their respective rhythms. The former is as calculated 
and modulated as the latter is casual. 

By the time that Broughton made this film, Peterson, now deeply in- 
volved in the use of sound in cinema, had made his last avant-garde film, 6 
although he probably didn't realize it at the time. In 1948 and 1949 he 



produced three sound films with his Workshop 20 at the California School 
of Fine Arts, the last two of which are his greatest achievements. The 
Petrified Dog, Mr. Frenbofer and the Minotaur, and The Lead Shoes were 
made in successive semesters as group projects with student participation. 

The Petrified Dog takes its title from the statue of a lion seen repeat- 
edly throughout the film and from an allusion to the freezing of the cam- 
era's motion, which we see first in the background of the film's titles. In 
theme, it might be called the further adventures of Alice in Wonderland. 
The heroine Alice climbs out of a hole in a park with her characteristic 
broad Victorian child's hat into a world where we have already seen a 
painter working within an empty frame, a slow motion runner hardly 
getting anywhere, a lady in fast motion eating her lipstick, and a photog- 
rapher who sets his camera up with a delayed shutter so that he can stand 
on pedestals and be snapped as a statue. Into this Wonderland she crawls, 
in slow motion at first. 

The events of the film are essentially disconnected. We see them in the 
order in which Alice, continually blinking (as the hero of The Potted Psalm 
continually twitched), turns her shutter-like gaze on them. Like Maya 
Deren's first heroine, she also sees herself in the mad landscape. The sole 
example of distorted imagery in this film is a brief shot of Alice looking 
at her reflection in the hubcap of a car. Peterson operated the camera 
himself this time. He eschewed the dynamic movements that characterize 
all his other films except for a few timid pans and some brief moving shots 
of the lion statue, both normal and upside-down. The stasis of the camera 
functions organically within the film: there is a sense that the episodes and 
gags are eternal, contiguous realities, not progressive events, and the cam- 
era style emphasizes the discreteness and fixity of the separate scenes, while 
the use of slow and fast motion brackets them. 

I have deliberately neglected the climactic scene of the film. A terrified 
young man wanders over a statue of Abraham Lincoln and into a massage 
parlor where two men are fighting; a skeleton decides to take advantage 
of him, prone on the massage table. As the skeleton wrestles with him and 
possibly rapes him, in normal and slow motion, the camera is liberated 
from its tripod and joins in the frenzy. From this point on, the episodes 
show signs of internal development. A bum approaches the painter with 
an empty frame, sticks his head through, and demands a hand-out. When 
the artist finally pulls a full cup of hot coffee out of his pocket, the bum 
is thankless; he throws it down and he kicks it away. The lipstick-eating 
lady eventually finishes her pasty lunch and walks away dropping several 
handkerchiefs. The painter follows her, collecting the droppings, which 
eventually include a bra and a slip. He pursues her through her door, only 
to be thrust out and attacked by her husband. Alice also sees herself in a 
chase: she eludes her nanny. 

The most interesting episode in the film is the one involving the painter 
and the bum, and it is interesting precisely insofar as it alludes to the art 
of Rene Magritte. The empty frame which makes a painting out of what- 




(a) The surrealistic frame in Peterson's The Petrified Dog. 
(b, c) Anamorphic images in Sidney Peterson's The Cage [the protagonist re- 
moves his eyeball] and Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur [dancing on the mat- 

ever rectangle of reality it faces recalls a number of Magritte paintings in 
which a canvas, resting on an easel fixed in a landscape or interior, trans- 
figures, in an illusionary way, the space in which it is placed. 

If there is a single theme which pervades the early American avant- 
garde film, it is the primacy of the imagination. In Peterson's films this 
theme is wedded to his own interest in the irrational sensibility of the artist. 
Yet despite the shift from the anarchistic themes of Entr'Acte to the psy- 
chological and aesthetic themes of Peterson's first three efforts, those films 
are closer to the sensibility of Dada than Surrealism. 

The sound track of The Petrified Dog is a primitive, and early, ex- 
ample of musique concrete. Peterson used four nonmusicians, a couple of 
traditional instruments, including an open piano so that the strings could 
be plucked or beaten, and anything at hand, even slapping oneself before 
the microphone of Hy Hirsch's wire recorder. After a few run-throughs, 
they recorded the entire soundtrack in one long take. Clyfford Still, who 
was also teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, was so taken with 
the music that he offered to pay for the transfer to film if he could have 
a copy of the wire recording. 



The soundtrack of The Petrified Dog is as free and as wild as the 
camera movements of Peterson's two earlier films. It is also functional 
within the experience of the film. The problems of the formal use of sound 
in film (synchronism, asynchronism, montage, or picture with sound) have 
no place in a discussion of The Petrified Dog. There have been two con- 
sistent approaches to sound within the American avant-garde: the func- 
tional and the formal. The extreme formal position, which Stan Brakhage 
propounds and Peter Kubelka practices, and which we shall consider in 
detail in the portions of this book devoted to their works, holds that no 
sound should be employed in a film except where it is absolutely necessary, 
that is, where the film has been conceived as a careful audiovisual synthe- 
sis. The functional position rests on the assumption that music (or words) 
intensify the cinematic experience, even when the film has been shot and 
edited without consideration for the sound. The functionalist hires a com- 
poser after his film has been edited; at his most casual, he finds a piece of 
recorded music that "fits" his work. In the catalogue of Art in Cinema 
(1947), considerable space is devoted to the editors' researches on the orig- 
inal musical soundtracks for many early French and German avant-garde 
films, and when research produced no results, they suggested a record 
which they had found, by experimentation, "fit" the older films. 

Broughton and Peterson had asked Francean Campbell, a relative of 
the man who first lent them a camera, to compose music for The Potted 
Psalm. They did not like the result; they never used it. Peterson noted in 
his discussion of this experiment that a soundtrack was not necessary then 
because Art in Cinema (the only place where they conceived the film could 
be shown) had been so active in finding records to play with silent films. 
It is true that live or recorded music usually accompanied the silent avant- 
garde films when they were shown in the 1920s. But the difference between 
the speed of projection at that time (between 16 and 18 frames per second) 
and the speed standardized in 1929 for sound (24 frames per second) made 
it next to impossible to put sound on those films even after the invention 
and popular use of optical soundtracks. The distribution of early silent 
films through the library of the Museum of Modern Art created a new 
aesthetic of silence within the American film experience. Thus Maya Deren 
made her first three films intentionally silent, as Brakhage has made most 
of his films since 1958. 

As collaborators, and later separately, Peterson and Broughton began 
with a functional conception of sound and moved toward a formal one. 
(Broughton returned to using a composer in the 1960s.) In both cases the 
formalization of the soundtrack occurred through a displacement of nar- 
rative information from visual images to voice, resulting in an elliptical 
treatment of the montage and an oblique method of conveying essential 
information through poetry, songs, or a stream-of-consciousness mono- 
logue. The simultaneous displacement of the narrative principle in both 
sound and picture necessarily provides for a new synthesis in their com- 


bination and for the possibility of a formal interplay through asynchro- 
nism, as one anticipates or reiterates the other. 

It was Peterson rather than Broughton who made the most of these 
formal possibilities. His step toward the integration of the visual and the 
aural coincided with the development of his general conception of cine- 
matic structure. Mr. Frenbofer and the Minotaur and The Lead Shoes 
recall the complex fusion of trance film, myth, and allusion in the kind of 
spherical mould that we found in Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured 
Time. Peterson has an irony that Maya Deren totally lacked; these two 
films are more mandarin, more allusive than hers. 

The elements of Peterson's synthesis in these films are easily isolated: 
for Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur they are Balzac's story, he Chef 
d'Oeuvre Inconnu, Pablo Picasso's engraving Minotaur omachie and a 
monologue in James Joyce's style. The visual unification is achieved simply 
and elegantly by the nearly absolute use of anamorphic photography and 
either fluid camera movements responding to the movements of the actors 
or almost choreographic movements of the actors within the static frame. 
Slow motion, especially at the beginning of the film, contributes to its 
gracefulness. There is almost no fast motion, superimposition, or wild 
movement of the camera. Peterson operated the camera himself. 

The film-maker treated Balzac's story as the framework for continuing 
his investigation of the artistic sensibility, which had been the theme of all 
of his earlier films. It was a theme especially suited to the situation out of 
which these films emerged — a workshop designed to infuse somewhat un- 
inspired painters and sculptors with excitement about making art through 
a collective film-making experience. 

Balzac's short story, from his Contes Philosophiques of 1831, involves 
two real painters of the seventeenth century and one imaginary one. The 
mature Porbus and the novice Poussin meet Balzac's creation, Frenhofer, 
who subjects Porbus' latest work to a scathing critique, shows him how 
to bring life and depth to it with a few brush strokes, and then proceeds 
to tell them about the masterpiece he has been working on for the past 
decade, La Belle Noiseuse, a portrait without a model of the courtesan 
Catherine Lescault. They are desperate to see the work in progress. Fren- 
hofer refuses to show it. 

Porbus conceives a plan for bringing Poussin 's beautiful young mistress 
to Frenhofer as a model so that he may compare perfect living beauty with 
his idealization. This had been Frenhofer's dream, and after much persua- 
sion Gilette is talked into modeling for the old master. Shocked when he 
finally sees the picture, Poussin cannot help exclaiming that there is noth- 
ing there but a wall of chaotic colors and formless masses. All the two 
painters can see on the other's canvas is a foot, an absolutely perfect re- 
alistic foot buried beneath the accumulated revisions of the painting. 

For Balzac, there is no question but that Frenhofer in his Pygmalion- 
like desire to perfect his idealized women has obliterated his masterpiece. 

6 4 


The thrust of the story, in any case, is not only aesthetic but moral: a 
parallelism and antithesis between the love of Gilette for Poussin and of 
Frenhofer for his painting, between the model in the flesh and the illusion 
on canvas, and ultimately between a man's work and his love. 7 

Peterson transferred the character of Gilette from an innocent and 
devoted mistress to a garrulous, flighty art student; the reluctance and 
foreboding of the original become the narcissistic fantasies of the woman 
in the film. If we could consider the film without its soundtrack, it would 
be elliptical, involuted, and schematic. The interior monologue, which has 
subtleties and reversals of its own, provides the narrative coherence. 

The anamorphic imagery congests the space, isolates the images, and 
suggests the realm of dream, memory, or a visionary state. The opening 
distortion of a cat with a dead mouse, followed by the slow fainting scream 
of Gilette accompanied by a violin whine, sets the tone for the whole film. 
It is one of several framing devices which initiate a dialogue of perspectives 
within the work. 

There is a fade; the brief image of a fencer; and then we are thrust 
into the middle of a scene complicated by the beginning of an interior 
monologue of associations. Gilette and a young man (Poussin) are dancing 
in slow motion on a mattress. The hand-held camera, gracefully following 
the bouncing of the bodies and the swaying of the hem of her dress, accents 
the erotic metaphor. A change of camera distance reveals that an old man 
(Porbus) has been watching their dance. Poussin formally introduces him, 
and he kisses Gilette's hand. They dance together on the bed. Another shot 
of the fencer, followed by a little girl carrying a candle (two images based 
on Picasso's etching), marks the transition from this scene to the next. 

In that scene, on the same bed and without the men, Gilette repeatedly 
pets her cat, intercut with recurrent images of the two figures from the 
Minotaur omachie. These parallel scenes remain independent of each other, 
never appearing in the same frame, until the climax of the film. Yet in the 
monologue the elements from Balzac and Picasso are intertwined from the 
beginning. As she plays with the cat, she speaks the following monologue: 

So much for nature mortified. And it doesn't run very deep 
anyway. Better never than too early. It's ever a question of how 
or ever. And no wonder the tired eye is a bird who sees some- 
thing worked over for ten years. And no wonder too, it's a plot 
to bribe the mater so chere with a modele, so to louvre to then 
chef d'oeuvre. And in this dream I too, caught like a spittle girl, 
immersed all in a stirry, a silly story: to pose or not to pose. I 
love him; I love him not. Or rather, since I love him less, al- 
ready, why not? 

An old man, mad about paint, Frenhofer and Gilette, bo- 
quet and med, me and Minotaur. Cats are carnivorous. Some- 
where there lies a man's head and the leftover part of a bull. 
God save us. Was that really a threat to Greek maidens? 


The introduction of elements from the Minotaur omachie occurs grad- 
ually. The minotaur itself, like Picasso's, obviously a man with a beast 
headpiece, enters while Gilette is petting her cat. Poussin has come to visit 
her, to sit with her on the mattress, and to read aloud to her from a book, 
Balzac's he Chef-d'Oeuvre Inconnu. Although we have already seen in 
schematic form and heard in fragmentary allusions almost half of the 
story, the reading begins at the beginning, in Gilette's voice. "On a cold 
December morning in the year 15 12, a young man whose clothing was 
somewhat of the thinnest. ..." 

The narrative returns to stream of consciousness ("Why not? Ham on 
rye, cheese and salad. If I'm ruined it's a question of pride or games. 
There's nothing in it for him. If he showed his wife, it's because he loved 
her not in order to see something better. Or because"). 

By this point in the film, the images of the Minotauromachie occupy 
as much screen time as those from the story, and subsequently the pro- 
portions shift in favor of Picasso-like material with the narrative elements 
coming to function as an interruption of the etching come to life, just as 
the fencer and the little girl had previously been formal interruptions of 
the story. A contrast is established between the fast motion, jump-cut, 
repetitive runs up and down a ladder by a new figure, a man in a loincloth, 
and the lady in the window calmly petting her dove. 

The last six shots of the sequence I have been describing bring the two 
worlds of the film's title together. A lunge from the fencer strikes Frenhofer 
in the heart. He falls to the ground and the fencer wipes the blood from 
the foil. Just before the last image of the dying painter's head, Peterson 
shows the Minotaur looking at the miraculous canvas, which of course we 
never get to see. The death occurs without a passage of monologue or 

Balzac's portrayal of the death of Frenhofer is an appendix to his story; 
it is the pitiful conclusion to a tragedy of failure. For Peterson and for us, 
after the experience of the past century of painting, Frenhofer's canvas is 
not a failure but a prophecy. The climax of the film — the death of the 
artist — calls up the myth of Pygmalion and invokes in explicit terms the 
central theme of the visionary cinema: the triumph of the imagination. 

It is not the artist who brings his work to life, although that is his 
aspiration as reflected in the paraphrases from Balzac in the monologue: 
"Where is art? It's absolutely invisible. It is the curve of a loving girl, and 
what fields of light! what spirit of living line that surrounds the flesh and 
defines the figure, that stands out so that if you wanted to you could pass 
your hand along the back. " It is the work, represented by the elements of 
the Minotauromachie, that engulf the man. 

The elements of Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur gravitate toward the 
idea of abstraction. By choosing to incorporate a painting from Picasso's 
classical period, rather than, say, an example of analytical Cubism, Peter- 
son approaches the prophetic facet of Frenhofer's painting through indi- 
rection. In an interview he described his intention: 



It was my decision to do a thing about the Balzac story, taking 
seriously as the theme of the story the conflict between Poussin's 
Classicism and its opposite. So as strained through my mind it 
became, really a way of exploring the conflict stated in Rous- 
seau's remark to Picasso: "We are the two greatest painters: you 
in the Egyptian manner; and I in the modern." In a sense. [I 
was] taking the quest for absolute beauty in the Balzac character 
and contrasting that with Picassoidal Classicism, the imitation of 
the Minotauromachie. It was not necessarily thought out clearly 
as though one were writing an essay; this was thematic material. 
Then the chips fell, partly again, in response to the curious limi- 
tations of doing this kind of thing with people who were not 
even "anti-actors." 8 

Peterson provides the material for a dream-like interpretation of the 
whole film. The opening and ending sequences contribute to the circularity 
of a dream; Gilette's trauma of seeing her cat with a dead mouse may 
become, in the dream, an image of the minotauromachia (scratching the 
cat, she calls him, "mini-mini-mini-tower"). By another train of associa- 
tion, reflected in the monologue, she connects "Kitty" with Catherine Les- 
cault of Balzac's story, which her lover may have read to her. 

Peterson was never completely satisfied with Mr. Frenhofer and the 
Minotaur because he had originally conceived of a more serious rendering 
of the monologue. He tried it himself, but found the recording incompre- 
hensible. The woman who eventually recited it was perhaps too glib and 
heavy of emphasis for Peterson's liking, but in his intimation of the film's 
failure, he ironically impersonates his protagonist. 

When the magazine Dance Perspectives published a special issue on 
dance in film, Peterson contributed a characteristically witty article. He 
begins with a reference to slow motion, more revealing of his Workshop 
20 films than his attempts at filming dance: 

So far as I know, no one has ever shot even a fragment of ballet 
at 100,000 frames per second, even though by this simple device 
one minute of shooting would be extended to more than 69 
hours of performance. It would be like watching the hour hand 
of a clock move. The only possible audience would be the per- 
formers themselves, and not even the most narcissistic would be 
able to take all 69 hours. 

I mention this fantastic possibility only because slow motion 
has, almost from the beginning, been the most obvious technical 
device (instant lyricism) for producing results that have gratified 
dancers and pleased cameramen. 9 

In Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur slow motion, along with anamor- 
phosis and ellipsis, solves the problem posed by bad actors. The dancing 


on the bed, and later the gestures of the old painter as he throws out his 
guests and then sits to admire his painting, shifting his chair and folding 
his arms, have an elegance and emphasis in slow motion that they would 
not otherwise have. He writes: 

If dancing were basket-weaving, there would be no problem 
about its being relegated to the role of subject matter in a cine- 
matic or televised message. The main difficulty arises, I believe, 
because dance too is an art of the moving image. It does not re- 
late to film as, for example, scene painting relates to theatre. It 
is, in effect, a competing medium. 

The important thing here is the realization that the art of 
the moving image did not commence with Fred Ott sneezing for 
Thomas Edison with the help of a jar of red pepper, any more 
than it commenced with Loie Fuller doing her famous Bat 
Dance in somebody's back yard for an anonymous cameraman. 
Both were practitioners of an art as old as humanity, if not 
older. 10 

We are at the crux of Peterson's genius: his ability to formulate a new 
perspective and to test its implications. 

Film has the problem of divesting itself of much that it had 
accomplished; of, in effect, starting over from scratch, returning 
to a time when it still had choices in the directions it might 
take, when it had not yet discovered its potentiality as a narra- 
tive or dramatic medium. 

The stupendous past and a Pisgah future are clearly in the 
hands of experimentalists, who have nothing to lose by their 
pains. The traditions of the art of the moving image are as 
broad as they are long. 11 

The example he uses to illustrate his new conceptual orientation for 
film as an aspect of "the art of the moving image" is Maya Deren's Cho- 
reography for Camera: 

Beatty's celebrated leap had its origins, not in film, but in 
the so-called Dumb Ballet of the English stage, of which Fun in 
a Bakehouse and Ki Ko Kookeeree were examples. The Oxford 
Companion to the Theatre calls the leap "the supreme test of 
the trick player" throughout all that part of the nineteenth cen- 
tury when it flourished. In this sense, Miss Deren (whose leap 
Beatty's really was) with her leap joined Melies and a company 
that included — not Taglioni, Grisi, or Cerrito — but Grimaldi, 
the Lupinos, the Conquests, and those extraordinary "entortilla- 
tionists" and "zampillerostationists," the Hanlon-Lees. 12 



In the first three films from Workshop 20 the students participated as 
actors and observers. In the summer semester of 1949, Peterson decided 
to let them participate in the conception of the film. A couple from Virginia 
(the Johnstons, as Peterson recalls) suggested that they film a traditional 
ballad. Mr. Johnston had just been studying the relationship of old English 
ballads to their American counterparts. Another student volunteered a div- 
ing suit, and still another her hamsters. The sheer incongruity of the ma- 
terials must have awakened the best of the film-maker's problem-solving 
and synthetic instincts. An instinct for the synthetic is normally the gift of 
a film editor, who is often faced with the task of making a coherent whole 
out of disparate and insufficient materials; Peterson, however, carried the 
editing principle into the very conception of his films. 

The anthropological principle of Johnston's thesis, that the ballads 
take on irrational and disjunctive aspects after translocation and the pas- 
sage of time, became the deliberate aesthetic of Peterson's new film; he 
would accelerate the disintegration by scrambling two ballads and by em- 
ploying the type of cinematic ellipsis and association he had developed in 
his previous film. 

The titles of the film mention "The Three Edwards and a Raven," a 
reference to the mixture within the film of the ballads, "The Three Rav- 
ens," and "Edward." Parker Tyler's notes on the Cinema 16 screening of 
the film in 1950 are particularly fine: 

Peterson came upon two old ballads, "Edward" and "The Three 
Ravens," the first a Colonial popularization of the Cain-and- 
Abel legend, and the second concerning three birds that wit- 
nessed a fallow-deer carry off a dying knight from the field of 
battle. In Peterson's film, the mother's passionate hysteria when 
she learns of "Abel's" murder indicates that at least a symbolic 
incest is present, a point given more weight when we consider 
that "Edward" is a variation of an older Scotch ballad, "Lord 
Randall," about a son who confesses to his mother that he 
killed his father. 

In that timeless time in which the true creator does prelimi- 
nary work — perhaps in a twinkle — Peterson visualized Edward, 
the murderous "Cain," in kilts and the corpse of "Abel" in a 
diving suit; thus the two ballads are fused because the diving 
suit substitutes for the knight's armor in "The Three Ravens." 
Then he must have felt the violence of a complex insight: a 
diver's lead shoes keep him on the seabottom, which seems 
equivalent to that abysmal level of instinct where anything is 

When the frantic mother digs up her son from the sand on 
the shore, she is performing again the labor she had on giving 
birth to him; the suit itself becomes a sort of coffin. Once more, 


before he is consigned to the grave, she must hold him close to 
her. If we can assume all this, as I believe we can, we may go 
further to note that the tragic emotion is ingeniously modified 
by two devices: one is the hopscotch game seen parallel with the 
main action. Every mother of two sons has the problem of bal- 
ancing her affections, which must be divided between them. This 
moral action was once anticipated in the physical terms of the 
hopscotch which she played as a girl: the player must straddle a 
line between two squares without falling or going outside them. 
The second device, the boogie-woogie accompaniment with its 
clamorous chorus, like the first, may have been instinctively 
rather than consciously calculated by Peterson. It operates un- 
mistakably: the voices and music supply a savage rhythm for the 
ecstatic if accursed performers of the domestic catastrophe. It is 
the lyrical interpretation of the tragedy and suggests the histori- 
cal fact that Greek tragedy derived from the Dionysian revel. 
Lastly we have the sinister implement and symbol of the castra- 
tion rite, the knife and the bread — perhaps representing the 
murderer's afterthought rather than part of his deed. 13 

The Lead Shoes opens with the hopscotch game. In a film of approx- 
imately one hundred shots, this image occurs fifteen times. Its repetition 
contributes to the frenetic pulse of the work; like the dancing on the mat- 
tress in the earlier film, it sets the tone and rhythm of the whole; in this 
case, fast, jumpy, hysterical movement, often filmed backward. 

The complexities begin with the next scene (introduced by another 
hopscotch image). The mother pulls off the diver's helmet. Then she opens 
the helmet window and takes out what appear to be three rats. While she 
is doing this, a barefoot man in a kilt enters the frame; blood drips on his 
feet. Thus is the condensed and elliptical introduction of Edward. We see 
the helmet become bloody; then we see his bloody hands on his mother's 
nightgown, and he leaves. 

The penultimate repetition of the hopscotch game (the final occurrence 
is the last image of the film) introduces the longest and most intricate epi- 
sode of the film. With the help of strangers whom she had accosted on the 
street, the mother manages to hoist the diver in his suit up to her balcony 
and drags him across the floor and onto the bed. She strips him of his suit; 
and then, in the film's most enigmatic image, lowers the body rather than 
the suit into the street. The instant the dead man's head hits the sidewalk, 
Peterson cuts to a bounding loaf of bread, suggesting a ghoulish transub- 
stantiation. Edward picks up the bread. In a series of jump-cuts we see 
him eating it in an outdoor cafe. In his hands, the loaf becomes a bone. 
He puts it down; suddenly there is a dog in his chair munching on the 
bone. These shots occur one after the other without any intercutting. 

Here is the point of maximum hysteria on the soundtrack. Peterson 



put together a jazz band, made up of the faculty of the art school where 
he taught. His students sing, howl, and chant, with the repetitiousness of 
a broken phonograph, phrases from the two ballads. He credits the John- 
stons, with their experience of ejaculatory singing, for some of the intensity 
of the soundtrack. 

The mother, at the height of her hysteria, accented by a twisting of 
the anamorphic lens, begins to writhe sexually on top of the empty, prone 
diving suit. We return to the dog at the table. In a reverse sequence, with- 
out actually reversing the photography, the bone becomes bread again, 
and Edward breaks it. Blood drips onto his plate, and he eats with fiendish 
relish as the scene fades out and then in on the last shot of the hopscotch 

In addition to the transference that Tyler notes of diving suit to coffin 
to knight's armor, Peterson has short-circuited the ballads so that the scav- 
enging mother assumes the role of the fallow deer in "The Three Ravens" 
who carries off the body of the dead knight; Edward becomes the ravaging 
ravens, a symbolic cannibal. One of his responses, in the ballad and on 
the soundtrack, to the endlessly repeated question, "How came that blood 
on the point of your sword, my son?" was that it was the blood of his 
dog. Here the dog also crosses over his role to become one of the ravens, 
eating the bone from the bread. 14 

The Lead Shoes and Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur are spherical 
forms with a narrative drift. The narration, such as it is, suggests eternally 
fixed cycles of behavior; it is aligned with ritual and myth. In both films 
the vital clues to the visual action are buried in the soundtrack, which also 
has functions altogether separate from conveying information. The sound- 
tracks dislocate the sequence of events, and through their anticipations of 
what is to be seen, they magnify the sense of the eternal and the cyclic. 
These two films are complementary in another way, using the Apollonian 
myth of Pygmalion and the Dionysian myth of Pentheus in disguised 

One can see in the careers of Peterson and Maya Deren, after their 
initial bursts of film-making, similar problems for the visionary film-maker. 
Maya Deren tried to establish a foundation to support the avant-garde 
film-maker. That work spilled over into an effort to promote the cause of 
independent film-making and encourage — or sometimes discourage — new 
film-makers. It was an effort she did not live to see fulfilled. Peterson 
attempted to channel his radicalism in more conventional directions — the 
documentary, television, the animated cartoon — and encountered all the 
well-known problems. With a naive oversimplification that is unusual for 
him, he has said, "I was trying to solve all those problems, which have 
subsequently been solved by a movement." 

Speaking of James Broughton, Peterson has defined the difference be- 
tween their sensibilities and their works as that between visual orientation 
and mise en scene. Broughton wrote a brief autobiographical sketch in 
which he says, "Sidney Peterson introduced me to the magic of experi- 



mental film." They are both unusually generous for one-time collaborators 
when referring to each other's work. 

In an essay for Film Culture 29, reprinted in the Film Culture Reader, 
"A Note on Comedy in the Experimental Film," written thirteen years 
after The Lead Shoes, Peterson explores the comic roots of the entire 
avant-garde film movement; what he says scarcely applies to most of the 
avant-garde film activity between The Lead Shoes and the time of writing; 
naturally, he is referring to himself more than to anyone else. His reflec- 
tions on the comic lead him to postulate a dynamiteur who must start the 
laughter when there is an ambivalence between the serious and the ridic- 
ulous; then he distinguishes between the audience who sees a finished film 
and the audience of its makers seeing the rushes and rough cuts. The feel- 
ing for participation, the sense of the making, the work behind the scenes, 
reveals his experimentalism in the late forties and early fifties; there is no 
film-maker for whom that term is more fitting than Peterson. Married to 
his idea of both experimentation and modernism is the notion of blague. 
He has pointed out the importance of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt's 
Manette Salomon, a novel about pre-Impressionist studio painting in 
France, as a central text of the sensibility of modern art, with its distinction 
between work for friends and for oneself, work to be seen in the studio 
and work destined for the salons. Out of this distinction emerges a rhetoric 
of authenticity, an attention to the working process, and a new sequence 
of myths of the artist. 

The myth of the visual sensibility prevails now. Since the Second World 
War a synthesis has bound the "visual" and the "dynamic" in a supposed 
opposition to the "literary." Peterson's position toward film-making, like 
that of Maya Deren, draws energy from that emergent synthesis, although 
to subsequent "dynamic visualists" in the dialectic of abstraction their 
works will look "literary." Roughly stated, that position holds that the film- 
maker should be his own cameraman and editor. The visualist approach im- 
plies the synthetic unity of functions which the film industry has jealously 
separated. A corollary to the same proposition often demands that the film- 
maker appropriate the whole visual field, leading ultimately to an expres- 
sionistic employment of anamorphosis, superimposition, painting on film, 
and numerous other ramifications of the images as they come out of the 
camera "factory perfect." The emergence of this aesthetic during the reign of 
Abstract Expressionism is not a coincidence. 

Peterson's distinction between visual organization and mise-en-scene 
boils down to a twin observation about Broughton: that he has a pro- 
nounced feeling for the dramatic and that he does not usually operate his 
own camera. He makes the kind of film where it is possible to employ a cam- 
eraman. The theatrical component in Broughton's cinema actually owes its 
greatest debts to the popular stage of the turn of the century, especially to 
tableaux vivants, mimes, and variety shows. This was a theater which was 
brought over into the first films. A nostalgia for the origins of cinema vital- 
izes much of Broughton's film-making. 



If Peterson and Deren purified cinema and used its perspectives to imi- 
tate the human mind, Broughton took cinema back to the time before the 
elaborate narratives of the early century in order to recapture the excitement 
of seeing and showing human bodies in action, apparitions, and sudden dis- 
appearances, and to imbue that cinema of action with a more profound 
sense of the cyclical rhythms of life and the feeling for the essential he 
equates with poetry. In "What Magic in the Lanterns?" he wrote: 

Modern poetry has been deeply influenced by film. Modern 
film has not sufficiently returned the compliment. . . . Let us be 
quite clear. To ask for poetry in cinema does not mean that one 
is asking for verse plays transferred dutifully to celluloid. . . . 
No, one is asking rather for the heart of the matter. For the es- 
sence of experience, and the sense of the whole of it. For the ef- 
fort and the absurdity, the song and the touch. For how we re- 
ally feel and dream — grasped and visualized afresh. 

Memorable poetry has always been a dramatic ritual. The 
coliseum. The cathedral. The theatre. The bullring. For us, the 
cinema. . . . 

Lumiere and Freud: fellow workers. They have given the 
Absolute a rough time and may have bashed it for good. The 
single picture is no longer the total picture. The modern mind 
thinks in associations and relativities, knowing the world's com- 
plex merry-go-round is a mixed up truth. 15 

Broughton's deepest feelings are for physical types, for costume and 
the naked human body, for cyclical rituals, and above all, for the comic. 
His capacity for laughter is extraordinary. I cannot help thinking that Pe- 
terson is writing about him in "A Note on Comedy in the Experimental 

I remember once being involved in the production of a film 
that was made to the accompaniment of howls that would have 
put the most callous laugh-track to shame. Every bit of film that 
came back from the lab was enjoyed I won't say hysterically but 
with remarkable thoroughness. 16 

In that same essay, Peterson writes, "the best introductions to the ex- 
travagances of experimental cinema are not the works of Ford, Eisenstein 
or de Mille. They are those silent comedies, first French, then American, 
in which people used to experience, until their ribs ached, the ferocity and 
heartiness of the farcical view of things." What he is saying here is even 
truer of Broughton's work than of his own. They both share the ferocious 



aspect of the comic, although it is much more on the surface in Peterson's 
rituals of destructive self-realization, dismemberment, and omophagia. 17 
Yet the credit for reviving the methods of the silent comedians — the crew 
and a group of performers ready for anything, free to romp and sponta- 
neously create a comic situation — belongs to Broughton. In his quest for 
the origins of cinema it is natural that he would feel an affinity for slapstick 
comedy, the genre which preserved the original vitalism of cinema the 
longest, certainly into his childhood. His transformation of the silent com- 
edy into an avant-garde picaresque influenced much of what Ron Rice and 
Robert Nelson did, following him with increased liberation, even anarchy. 

Broughton was no anarchist. It is significant that he linked the names 
of Freud and the Lumieres; for, although he was deeply committed to 
Jungian, rather than Freudian, psychoanalysis, the nostalgia for the origins 
of cinema is fused in his work with an ironic quest for the origin of his 
own psychic development. His films are all tempered with a view of the 
cyclic and ritualistic nature of human events and antagonisms, but one 
must see his works of the late sixties and early seventies, where ritual 
becomes explicit, elliptical shifts become extreme, and the sexual quest 
becomes more immediate, to isolate these elements in the earlier films. In 
Four in the Afternoon (1951), he showed four vignettes, each built around 
a single image with a verse soundtrack. He outlined the organization in a 

A quartet for poems moving 
A film in four movements 

Each movement is a variation on the same theme 
The movements are at four ages and four stages 

1. the girl of 10 

2. the lad of 20 

3. the woman of 30 

4. the man of 40 

Each movement is in itself a poetic movement 

Each movement blends its movement with music and verse. 1 

In a more elaborate series of notes he assigned musical terms to the four 
parts: "Game Little Gladys," Allegro; "The Gardener's Son," Adagio; 
"Princess Printemps," Scherzo; "The Aging Balletomane," Lento. The en- 
tire film derives from his book of poems, Musical Chairs. 

For each of the four film poems there is a distinctive cinematic trope; 
with "Game Little Gladys" it is stop-motion manifestation and disappear- 
ance of possible lovers; in the case of "The Gardener's Son" it is a 
composition-in-depth with the boy in the foreground and the women he 
desires in the background. At one point he comes towards the camera, 
walking barefoot almost in slow motion, as a blonde girl passes him walk- 
ing in the opposite direction. We never see her face. As she recedes, he 



turns to watch her go. A statue of Venus is cut into this scene. Later we 
see him in the foreground spying on three girls dancing like the Graces in 
a clearing. 

The success of this episode, like the weakness of the subsequent one, 
"Princess Printemps," is a matter of mise-en-scene. It is the successful or- 
ganization of movement with an emotional vector. In the autobiographical 
sketch I have already quoted from, he says, "I have learned more about 
the writing of poetry from music than from literature. And more about 
the making of films from dance than from cinema." 

The final section, "The Aging Balletomane," may be the finest. In a 
rocking chair looking out upon a lower-class backyard with tiers of laun- 
dry hanging out to dry, the has-been dancer, who seems much older than 
the forty years the film-maker assigns to him for the symmetry of his out- 
line, rocks in slow motion conjuring up a magical reverie with opera 
glasses instead of a wand. Reverse motion is the trope of this episode, a 
natural choice of mechanics for unrolling the past. So in a backward leap 
a ballerina floats onto the pedestal before him; she performs the reverse 
of a series of classic movements, as the old man, in a series of slow-motion 
leaps following the trajectory of his rocking, tries to approach her. She 
dissolves away before he can touch her. Then we see him running back- 
wards into his chair twice, either to reinvoke her or to taste the sweetness 
of his apparition. 

This film is a crucial case of the junction of verse and film within the 
American avant-garde. It is unfortunate that Broughton himself was not 
present at the famous Cinema 16 discussion of the fusion of these two 
modes on October 28, 1953. The text of the discussion between Willard 
Maas, Maya Deren, Parker Tyler, Arthur Miller, and Dylan Thomas has 
been printed in Film Culture and in the Film Culture Reader. Thomas and 
Miller were not prepared to contribute significantly; but for Maya Deren 
it was an occasion to make a theoretical statement which throws a great 
deal of light on the aspirations of poets making cinema in the 1950s. She 
set out to define the essence of poetry: 

The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by "a 
poetic structure"), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, 
if you will, that it is a "vertical" investigation of a situation, in 
that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned 
with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry con- 
cerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it 
feels like or what it means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible 
or auditory forms for something that is invisible, which is the 
feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the 
movement. Now it also may include action, but its attack is 
what I would call the "vertical" attack, and this may be a little 
bit clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the "hori- 
zontal" attack of drama, which is concerned with the develop- 



ment, let's say, within a very small situation from feeling to feel- 
ing. Perhaps it would be made most clear if you take a 
Shakespearean work that combines the two movements. In 
Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a "hori- 
zontal" plane of development, of one circumstance — one action — 
leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once 
and a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he 
wants to illuminate the meaning to this movement of drama, 
and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it "ver- 
tically," if you will, so that you have a "horizontal" develop- 
ment with periodic "vertical" investigations, which are the po- 
ems, which are the monologues. 19 

Her examples within the avant-garde film were both from Willard Maas's 

It's things of this sort that, I believe, occur in the work of Mr. 
Maas, who has done that to a certain extent in his last film, Im- 
age in the Snow, where the development of the film is very 
largely "horizontal," that is, there is a story line, but this is illu- 
minated constantly by the poetic commentary so that you have 
two actions going on simultaneously. Now this, I think, is one 
of the great potentials of film and something that could very 
well be carried and developed much further, and I think that 
one of the distinctions of that film and also of Geography of the 
Body, is that it combines these principles. I think that this is a 
way of handling poetry and film, and poetry in film. 20 

In the earlier of these two films, Geography of the Body (1943), Maas, 
his wife Marie Menken, and the poet George Barker filmed details of each 
other's bodies with dime-store magnifying glasses taped to a 16mm camera 
that the animator Francis Lee had left with them when he entered the 
army. Barker wrote and recited a surrealistic poem for the film. Its allu- 
sions to exotic and mystical travels suggest, with the synchronized con- 
currence of images from ambiguously defined zones of the body, the image 
of the body as a landscape and as a continent. 

A few simple observations can be made now, in the light of historical 
perspective, on the emergence of the film with poetic commentary in the 
forties and fifties, and its disappearance in the late sixties. In the first place, 
the idea of a complex rendering of the momentary experience provides us 
with a central clue. By 1953 Maya Deren had started to use sound in her 
films and was considering cross-cultural visual analogies as a means of 
probing the moment in depth. As usual, she was forecasting what would 
happen years later, as will be evident in my discussions of Kenneth Anger 
and Stan Brakhage in the 1960s. At another point in the same discussion 
she gave the following example about sound: 



And so, in that sense, they would be redundant in film if they 
were used as a further projection from the image. However, if 
they were brought in on a different level, not issuing from the 
image, which should be complete in itself, but as another dimen- 
sion relating to it, then it is the two things together that make 
the poem. It's almost as if you were standing at a window and 
looking out into the street, and there are children playing hop- 
scotch. Well, that's your visual experience. Behind you, in the 
room, are women discussing hats or something, and that's your 
auditory experience. You stand at the place where these two 
come together by virtue of your presence. What relates these 
two moments is your position in relation to the two of them. 
They don't know about each other, and so you stand by the 
window and have a sense of afternoon, which is neither the chil- 
dren in the street nor the women talking behind you but a curi- 
ous combination of both, and that is your resultant image, do 
you see? 21 

In Broughton's next film, Loony Tom, the Happy Lover, a Chaplin- 
esque elf-man skips through fields, farms, and estates, kissing and chasing 
women and bringing lovers together. Tom's sing-song poem bursts in on 
the film as an ecstatic nursery rhyme, a subjective hallelujah where gesture 
cannot reach. This film is an appendix to Four in the Afternoon and a 
homage to the silent comedy. 

The visionary film-maker in America does not go on quietly doing his 
work indifferent to considerations of exhibition, distribution, and re- 
sponse, even though that may be his goal. The crisis that Peterson faced 
in 1950, when he decided to try to make a documentary, Broughton en- 
countered two years later. It took a form traditional to American artists — 
extended exile in Europe. One can say that the deflection of Art in Cinema 
away from the exhibition of "experimental" films in the early 1950s ac- 
celerated the break-up of the film-making nucleus in San Francisco. But 
beyond the local factors, there was the sheer economic struggle of raising 
even enough money for the most minimal productions, which made it next 
to impossible for aspiring film-makers to see a future of self-produced 

In England, with the help of his friends Lindsay Anderson and Basil 
Wright, Broughton obtained financing for a 35mm feature film, The 
Pleasure Garden (1953), based on the materials of his earlier films 
but with an obvious dramatic structure. The success and failure of The 
Pleasure Garden itself is a topic beyond the scope of this book. What 
interests us is the effect it had on the film-maker. It almost ended his ca- 
reer. In his own words, it "spoiled" him for any low-budget production 
after that. 

In 1961 Broughton married. It was an extravagant, eclectic ceremony 
performed by the writer and onetime priest Alan Watts, following a civil 



service in San Francisco's City Hall, and preceding a sea ritual of Brough- 
ton's invention. He asked Stan Brakhage to record all the ceremonies on 
film as a keepsake. At that time Broughton had definitively given up film- 
making. Two years later, when he was at Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, as a 
judge for the third International Experimental Film Competition he still 
had no plans to edit the wedding footage or to make a new film, unless 
by a stroke of good fortune he were to receive one of fifteen grants of ten 
thousand dollars which the Ford Foundation was offering film-makers that 
year. He did not get one. Only Kenneth Anger, of the film-makers dis- 
cussed here, received one, although almost all applied. 

When Jacques Ledoux, the director of the Cinematheque Royale de 
Belgique and organizer of the Experimental Film Competition, came to the 
United States in 1967 to seek films for the next festival, he conceived the 
idea of giving a small amount of color film stock to a number of previous 
participants in the hope that they would make new films for his festival. 
Broughton responded to the challenge. He engaged William Desloge as a 
cameraman and made The Bed (1967). 

In form it is another picaresque romp, asking, "What can happen to 
and on a bed?," with overtones of the short cycle of man's life as opposed 
to the life of the human species. The first of many naked people to occupy 
the wandering bed represents Adam; through stop motion, Eve is born at 
his side. In slow motion they chase each other. Jump-cuts breaking their 
graceful motion — this is the most balletic of his films and is very diversified 
in terms of its internal motions compared with his earlier works — they 
move offscreen, to return just before the end. Pan appears; he plays a 
saxophone in a tree to charm the bed. Then Broughton himself sits on the 
mattress in a lotus position contemplating a snake. Another man, in slow 
motion, leaps over the bed, with a movement that recalls Choreography 
for Camera and makes explicit the debt that he had been acknowledging 
for years. 

The tableaux and brief scenes are extensive: a wedding party, a cow- 
boy sleeping in his boots, an ancient couple, a naked woman and a mo- 
torcyclist, a somnambulist who rides off on a horse, a ball game, a card 
game, pot smoking, faun and satyr, a black odalisque, a doctor who be- 
comes a priest to administer last rites, Death, numerous sexual arrange- 
ments, men and women together, men and men, two men and a woman, 
an androgyne. At the end of the film Adam and Eve return; the film-maker 
and his snake appear again; then the empty bed departs across the field as 
it came. 

There are no words with this film; only the music of Warner Jepson. 
The poem had disappeared as a possible soundtrack for avant-garde films 
in the late 1950s. One of its functions, the presentation of the first person, 
had been usurped by camera perspectives and associational montage. The 
most ardent exponent of contemporary poetry as a guide to film construc- 
tion, Stan Brakhage, argued that cinema should elaborate its poetics in the 
field of the visual. 



Broughton himself is one of the exceptions who continued to use the 
poetic voice into the seventies. The Bed had been unusual for him. In 
Nuptiae (1969) he utilized fragments of the marriage service and a song 
he wrote for the occasion. The Golden Positions (1970) combines spoken 
text with songs and choral odes; 22 This Is It (1971), more than any other 
film of Broughton's, depends fundamentally on the interactions of visual 
images and the ironic cosmological poem on its soundtrack; and finally, 
Dreamwood (1972.) opens with a brief poem, defining the quest of that 
remarkable work, the last of the trance films. 

Broughton's productivity since 1967 attests to his complete rebirth as 
a film-maker. Although The Bed did not gain a prize at the festival for 
which it had been made, it had an unusual success for an avant-garde film, 
in part because of its nudity and in part because of its gaiety. Its reception, 
which included some festival prizes and a brief commercial distribution, 
inspired and encouraged Broughton. He accepted a post teaching film and 
concentrated on the medium in a way that he had never done before. The 
fourteen years between The Pleasure Garden and The Bed had been a time 
of radical change in the situation of visionary film-makers. They were now 
teaching; they were distributing their films in cooperatives; some were re- 
ceiving grants from major foundations; they were making more films than 
before; the film-maker had become the artist as hero, a role previously 
reserved for poets and painters in the United States. 

In The Golden Positions Broughton refined the format of The Bed by 
increasing the number and the variety of the tableaux, by exploiting the 
tension between scenes of movement and of stillness, by organizing the 
brief scenes into thematic movements, and above all, by giving the whole 
film a rigorous structure — his most rigorous and complex since Mother's 
Day. As that first film had played with the form of the family album, The 
Golden Positions imitates the Mass, opening with a Gospel reading, which 
the film-maker calls "The Lesson" in his script, describing the three essen- 
tial positions of "standing, sitting, and lying." The film begins with a navel 
in close-up. "Let us contemplate," Broughton speaks in liturgical tone as 
the camera zooms back to frame the whole naked male form. In the sub- 
sequent sections, "Anthem," "Creation of the Body," "A Short History of 
Art and Religion (Adam and Eve to Pieta)," "Secular Life," "Domestic 
Eroticon," and "Finale: The Positions of the Gods," Broughton playfully 
exhausts his repertoire of parodies of the human cycles. 

This Is It is more concise and direct in its parody of cosmology than 
The Golden Positions had been of the Mass. Broughton's vehicle is a 
"home movie" of his son, Orion, playing naked with a large red ball in a 
yard. The camera first isolates the ball amid grass. "In the beginning it 
was already there," Broughton says on the soundtrack, and he continues 
his parody cosmology with other shots of the isolated ball, withholding 
the introduction of the child until the voice of God proclaims, "It needs 
something that looks more like Me." This Is It refuses to identify the 

Tableaux from James Broughton's Mother's Day and The Golden Positions. 



camera's perspective with the child's vision. It insists, in words and chants, 
on the absolute resignation of metaphysics to the present moment. 

This is it. 
This is really it. 
This is all there is. 
And it's perfect as it is. 

As such, it is gently subversive of his friend Stan Brakhage's Romantic 
struggle with the loss of the primal vision of childhood and his subsequent 
attempt to reconcile that loss with imagination in a new cosmological and 
epistemological epic in his films from Anticipation of the Night (1958) to 
Dog Star Man (1961-1965). Broughton's strong attachment to Brakhage's 
work, a decisive factor in his return to film-making, leaves room for fun- 
damental poetic disagreement. 

At least as far back as the time of making The Bed, Broughton con- 
templated a serious attempt at mythopoeia. "The subject of Dreamwood 
had obsessed me for years," he wrote. "I first conceived shaping it as a 
variation on the Theseus myth." But once he started the film, with the 
help of a Guggenheim Foundation grant, he quickly replaced the scheme 
of the traditional myth with a quest of his own invention. Dreamwood 
alludes to several myths: Hippolytus, Apollo, Sisyphus, and Narcissus are 
seen passing in the background of different scenes, but these allusions be- 
come witty intrusions into the otherwise thoroughly personalized vision; 
they are, in fact, the only vestiges of the ironic self-mockery which abounds 
in all of Broughton's earlier films. As a total work, Dreamwood occupies 
the space between the trance film and the mythopoeic cinema, much as 
Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time had, but from the retrospective 
rather than the anticipatory position. No single film in the whole of the 
American avant-garde comes as close as this one to the source of the trance 
film, Cocteau's he Sang d'un Poete. 

The film begins with its hero in a spiritual crisis in his tower room. In 
pursuit of his vision of a female presence, he leaps from the tower. He 
follows an ominous couple to the end of a pier, and then is ferried alone 
across an expanse of water to an enchanted island where he endures ter- 
rible trials and undergoes a series of sexual initiations. Broughton's note 
on the film elaborates upon the events, but it also obscures the direct 
linearity of the film: 


The Poet in his tower, at an impasse. 

Out of dreams comes the Call to Adventure: his anima abducted 

by the First parents. 
Beginning of the Quest: the Night Sea Journey. 
The Other Shore: a strange bare island. 


Before he can enter the Forest of Dreamwood he must pass 
three guardians of the mysteries: 
the helpful Crone, 

the Terrible Father -Mother of his past who would hold him 

the Mother Superior of the forest who prepares him for en- 

first initiation: the vision of the green chapel of the Goddess 
is disturbed by manifestations of nymphs & children, cul- 
minating in the encounter with Artemis bathing. For ap- 
proaching her, he pays a price. Wakes up outside. 

second initiation: returning to the wood, he overcomes the 
Amazon guardian (Hippolyta). In the forest Alchemina 
has sport with him, to lead him deeper. Finally he en- 
counters Lilith who takes who takes her pleasure with 
him. Out of the cold frenzy he wakes again outside the 

third initiation: the guardian of the gate this time is a 
woodsman. In their encounter they discover they are 
"brothers." The woodsman takes the poet to the place 
where he may climb up to where the Old Queen Hecate 
dwells. Overcoming his fear, he enters her to be reborn. 
He survives this ordeal and this time awakens inside the 

fourth initiation: he finds himself again in the green chapel. 
This time it is welcoming and the presence of the God- 
dess is felt. She calls to him as to a lover. He disrobes 
and makes offerings to her, from his body. These are ac- 
cepted, and he then makes love to her body, the Earth it- 

CODA: thanks to this union, his anima soul is contained within 
him. And this sacred marriage is blessed by sun and 
moon. 23 

The naming of the deities might suggest a complex mythography such 
as I shall describe in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome 
or Gregory Markopoulos's The Illiac Passion. In fact, the identification of 
the figures in Broughton's film is almost unimportant. The three sexual 
initiations are performed by a single actress in slightly different costumes. 
The axe murder of the hermaphrodite, the sparagmos of the hero by naked 
children, the lovemaking, the rebirth, the offerings of saliva, urine, feces, 
and sperm, and the final incorporation of the sun and the moon are so 
vividly and directly depicted in the film that their mythological analogues 
are superfluous. 

Broughton employs a rhetoric of apparitions throughout the film. He 
generally achieves them by dissolving a new figure into a scene that has 



already been set up. When the protagonist reaches the end of a pier, a 
rowboat and a Charon-like oarsman suddenly appear at his feet. The fe- 
male presence, which the film-maker calls his "anima," sometimes appears 
through such a dissolve, but for the most part she is seen in sudden su- 
perimpositions. The apparitional quality is furthermore affirmed by the 
continual references to him as a dreamer. At the end of each major trial 
of initiation, as at the very beginning of the film and in the prelude to the 
tower episode, we suddenly find him waking from sleep. In those waking 
moments he is clothed, although just before we had seen him naked. 

Cocteau froze time by showing his entire vision between two frames 
of a tower's collapse. Broughton undermines sequential time by dwelling 
on a black-and-white photograph during the initial scene in the tower. We 
discover at the end of the film that that photograph — of the Poet in the 
nude leaping with arms spread — was a still of the final image, his ecstatic 
leap commemorating the conclusion of his quest, the union of male and 
female within him. When he made his version of the trance film with such 
vitality in 1972, the film-maker too folded time and created the work 
which most clearly illuminates his films of twenty-five years earlier. 

he Magus 


born in southern California in 1930. Ac- 
cording to his interviews, he played the 
role of the child prince in Max Reinhardt's 
movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream 
and had Shirley Temple for a dancing 
partner at cotillions of the Maurice Kos- 
sloff Dancing School. For him more than 
for any other avant-garde film-maker Hol- 
lywood is both his matrix and the adver- 
sary. In his excellent article on Anger's 
films, 1 Tony Rayns cites the Olympian 
analogy from Anger's Hollywood-Babylon: 
"There was Venus and Adonis only called 
Clara and Rudy; there was Pan called 
Charlie; there was even old Bacchus 
named Fatty and maimed Vulcan named 
Lon. It was an illusion, a tease, a fraud; it 
was almost as much fun as the 'old-time 
religion' — without blood on the altars. But 
the blood would come." The ambivalent 
mixture of satire and homage with which 
that book is written amounts to an exer- 
cise in fascination characteristic of every- 
thing to which Anger devotes himself. 
Scandal, evil, violence, and Fascism, like 
Hollywood, are centers of fascination for 

8 4 


Anger, and his films are the fields in which the dialectic of that fascination 
is played and fought. 

Of Anger's very early films there are no descriptions in print. Lewis 
Jacobs, in his contribution to Experiment in the Film, is our sole source 
of information about Escape Episode: 

Less concerned with cinematic form and more with human 
conflict are the pictures of Kenneth Anger. Escape Episode 
(1946) begins with a boy and girl parting at the edge of the sea. 
As the girl walks away she is watched by a woman from a plas- 
ter castle. The castle turns out to be a spiritualists' temple, the 
woman a medium and the girl's aunt. Both dominate and twist 
the girl's life until she is in despair. Finally in a gesture of defi- 
ance the girl invites the boy to the castle to sleep with her. The 
aunt informed by spirits becomes enraged and threatens divine 
retribution. The girl is frustrated, becomes bitter and resolves to 

The quality of the film is unique and shows an extreme sen- 
sitivity to personal relationships. But because the thoughts, feel- 
ings and ideas of the film-maker are superior to his command of 
the medium, the effect is often fumbling and incomplete, with 
parts superior to the whole. 2 

Anger's notes on his films are often the best guide to their mysteries; in 
every case they are interesting. In Film Culture 31, he provided the follow- 
ing filmography of his work before Fireworks: 


7 min. 1 6mm B&W. Silent. Filmed in Santa Monica, California. 
Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed and Edited by Ken- 
neth Anger. Cast: A dozen contemporaries recruited from the 
neighborhood. Synopsis: A montage of American children at 
play, drifting and dreaming, in the last summer before Pearl 
Harbor. Flash cuts of newsreel holocaust dart across their rev- 
erie. Fog invades the playground; the children dropping in mock 
death to make a misty landscape of dreamers. 

TINSEL TREE (1941-42) 

3 min. 1 6mm B&W. Hand-tinted. Silent. Filmed in Santa Mon- 
ica. Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed and Edited by 
Kenneth Anger. Cast: A Christmas Tree. Synopsis: The ritual 
dressing and destruction of the Christmas Tree. Close-ups as the 
branches are laden with baubles, draped with garlands, tossed 
with tinsel. Cut to the stripped discarded tree as it bursts into 


brief furious flame (hand-tinted gold-scarlet) to leave a charred 


11 min. 16mm B&W. Silent. Filmed in Santa Monica. Credits: 
Conceived, Directed, Photographed and Edited by Kenneth An- 
ger. Camera Assistant: Charles Vreeland. Settings, Miniatures, 
and Costume Designed and Executed by Kenneth Anger. Cast: 
Kenneth Anger (The Boy-Elect from Earth). Synopsis: Science- 
Fiction rendering of the Minotaur myth. A "chosen" adolescent 
of the future is rocketed to Mars where he awakens in a laby- 
rinth littered with the bones of his predecessors. Formal use of 
"serial chapter" aesthetic: begins and ends in a predicament. 

THE NEST (1943) 

20 min. 1 6mm B&W. Silent. Filmed in Santa Monica, West- 
wood and Beverly Hills. Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photo- 
graphed and Edited by Kenneth Anger. Cast: Bob Jones 
(Brother); Jo Whittaker (Sister); Dare Harris — later known as 
John Derek in Hollywood — (Boy Friend). Synopsis: A brother 
and sister relate to mirrors and each other until a third party 
breaks the balance; seducing both into violence. Ablutions and 
the acts of dressing and making-up observed as magic rite. The 
binding spell of the sister-sorceress is banished by the brother 
who walks out. 


35 min. 16mm B&W. Silent. Filmed in Santa Monica and Hol- 
lywood. Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed and Edited 
by Kenneth Anger. Cast: Marilyn Granas (The Girl); Bob Jones 
(The Boy); Nora Watson (The Guardian). Synopsis: Free render- 
ing of the Andromeda myth. A crumbling, stucco-gothic sea-side 
monstrosity, serving as a Spiritualist Church. Imprisoned within, 
a girl at the mercy of a religious fanatic "dragon" awaits her de- 
liverance by a beach-boy Perseus. Ultimately it is her own defi- 
ance which snaps the chain. 


5 min. B&W. Silent. Filmed in Hollywood on V-J Day. Credits: 
Photographed and Edited by Kenneth Anger. Cast: Anonymous 
street crowds. Synopsis: A free-wheeling hand-held camera- 
plunge into the hallucinatory reality of a hysterical Hollywood 
Boulevard crowd celebrating War's End. A mushrooming cloud 
makes a final commentary. 




2.7 min. Music by Scriabin. 

This shorter edition makes non-realistic use of bird wind and 
surf sounds, as well as Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy" to heighten 
mood. 3 

The corpus of Anger's work I have selected begins with Fireworks. His 
note on it is cryptic; it assumes the viewer already knows the film! 


15 min. 16mm B&W. Sound (Music by Respighi). Filmed in 
Hollywood. Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed and Ed- 
ited by Kenneth Anger. Camera Assistant: Chester Kessler. Cast: 
Kenneth Anger (The Dreamer); Bill Seltzer (Bare-Chested Sailor); 
Gordon Gray (Body-Bearing Sailor); crowd of sailors. Synopsis: 
A dissatisfied dreamer awakes, goes out in the night seeking 'a 
light' and is drawn through the needle's eye. A dream of a 
dream, he returns to a bed less empty than before. 4 

As we watch the film we hear Anger speaking a prologue: "In 
Fireworks I released all the explosive pyrotechnics of a dream. Inflammable 
desires dampened by day under the cold water of consciousness are ignited 
that night by the libertarian matches of sleep, and burst forth in showers 
of shimmering incandescence. These imaginary displays provide a tempo- 
rary relief." 

The opening image is of water; a burning torch is dipped into it. Then 
there is a close-up of a sailor. As the camera dollies back from his face we 
see in flashes of illumination, like lightning, that he is holding the protag- 
onist, the dreamer, in his arms. After a fade-out, the camera observes the 
same dreamer in bed. Another dolly movement shows he is alone. He stirs, 
wakes. A pan of the room reveals a marble or plaster hand with a broken 
finger. Images of the dreamer's hands moving on his own body suggest 
masturbation. We see in a long shot of the whole room that he has a 
monstrous erection under the covers. Then he takes out an African statue 
which breaks the phallic illusion. Photographs are scattered on the floor 
of the earlier shot of the sailor holding him. From these photographs it is 
clear that he is bruised and bloody. 

Once he is out of bed, the camera pans up the dreamer's pants; he 
zips his fly just as the camera eye passes by; then to his face, framing a 
composition with the broken hand in the background. The camera follows 
him fluidly as he picks up the photos, throws them into the cold fireplace, 
and puts on his shirt. Another composition-in-depth frames the dreamer 
between the primitive phallic statue in the foreground and mirror in the 
far back as he takes out U.S. Navy matches. He leaves his room through 
a door marked gents in grotesquely large print. 


The scene shifts as he passes through the door from compositions-in- 
depth, with regular camera movements, to fixed shots of the protagonist 
highlighted in black, formless space. A muscle-bound sailor appears before 
the painted backdrop of a bar. The dreamer approaches him and watches 
as he flexes his bare arm and chest muscles in close-ups. When the dreamer 
asks him for a light, the sailor punches him, knocks him off the screen, 
then twists his arm behind him. Suddenly, they are before the fireplace in 
the original room. The sailor takes a torch of sticks out of the fire and 
lights the cigarette for the dreamer. Then he picks up his cap and leaves. 

Again the scene shifts to the dreamer highlighted against black. From 
above, the camera looks down on the hero, smoking. He turns abruptly 
and, in the next shot, sees a gang of sailors. They come at him, passing 
from light through darkness into light again. The camera follows their 
shadows. They rush him, carrying chains. 

The following scene of orgasmic violence is constructed out of close- 
ups of the dreamer's body isolated in darkness and shots of the sailors 
performing violent acts just off screen. From above we see fingers shoved 
into the dreamer's nostrils, and blood shoots out of his nose and mouth. 
A sailor twists his arm, and he screams hysterically. A bottle of cream is 
smashed on the floor. With a broken piece a cut is made in his chest; 
hands separate the pudding-like flesh to reveal a heart like a gas meter. 
His chin is framed in the bottom of the black screen like a frozen wave. 
Cream poured from above flows over it into his mouth. Cream washes his 
bloody face; then it flows down his chest. There is a pan of empty urinals. 
The gents door opens, but no one is behind it. Then the sailor of the 
opening sequence appears; the camera dollies to his face in the reverse of 
its initial movement. In the next shot, he opens his fly and lights a roman 
candle phallus which shoots out burning sparks. 

The fire of the roman candle becomes the flame of a wax candle on 
the tip of a Christmas tree which the dreamer wears like a giant hieratic 
helmet. He bows toward the camera, enters his room, and lights the pho- 
tographs in the fireplace with the burning tree. We see him sleeping again, 
as in the opening. But now there is a fire in the fireplace; and a pan of the 
bed shows someone in it beside him. Scratches over the filmed images hide 
his face from us. The pan continues to the plaster hand, now repaired so 
that all its fingers are whole. The hand falls into the water, where the torch 
had been quenched in the first shot. "The End" appears in superimposition 
over the water. 

Fireworks is a pure example of the psycho-dramatic trance film: the 
film-maker himself plays out a drama of psychological revelation; it is cast 
in the form of a dream beginning and ending with images of its hero as a 
sleeper; finally, the protagonist is the passive victim of the action of the 
film. Actually, there are two dreams in Fireworks. The first is the brief 
disjointed opening couplet of fiery images — the extinguishing of the torch 
in water and the dolly shot of the sailor holding the beaten dreamer amid 
flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. A slow fade-out, the only one in 




The psychodramatic trance film: (a) Maya Deren in Ritual in 
Transfigured Time; (b) Kenneth Anger in Fireworks; (c) Stan Brak- 
hage reflected in the metal of a toaster in Flesh of Morning; (d) 
Walter Newcomb in negative in Stan Brakhage's The Way to 
Shadow Garden. 


the film, marks the end of this sequence, which we can presume to be a 
dream, because the subsequent image is of a sleeper; this is further con- 
firmed a minute later when we see the pictures of the sailor and the 
dreamer scattered beside the bed, as if they were the objects of a mastur- 
bation fantasy before sleeping. 

The day and night of the falsely wakened dreamer betray a dream 
structure before the final confirmation that the whole film has been a 
dream in the last images of the sleeper. The exaggerated gents sign; the 
substitution of a gas meter for a heart; the repeated sudden changes of 


locale from barroom to fireside, from men's room back to bedroom are 
standard in the cinematic vocabulary of the dream. Finally, the dramatic 
substitution of a roman candle for a penis, from which the film derives its 
title, suggests that we have entered the mind of the sleeper rather than that 
the sleeper has awakened to the causal world. 

Significantly, a photograph occupies a central and paradoxical posi- 
tion within the film as both the source and residue of the dream. If the 
opening passage of the protagonist held by the sailor, followed by the same 
protagonist waking, suggests that the former was his dream, the photo- 
graph by the side of his bed, showing the same image as the dream, appears 
to be the source of his nocturnal masturbation fantasy which had become 
"animated" in his sleep. Yet as the waking day proceeds, its mimesis veers 
towards ironic displacements: for a match, a bunch of burning sticks is 
substituted; for a heart, a metallic meter; for a penis, a roman candle; for 
semen, cream. What terminates the dream and allows us to see the sleeping 
figure unmediated by his own imagination is the burning of the very pho- 
tograph that seemed to be the source of the dream. Here the space and 
time of the dream coincide with the duration of the photograph as a fet- 
ishistic object occupying the twilight area between an experience of du- 
bious authenticity and the full awakening that is continually postponed. 

The filmic dream constituted for Anger, as it had for Deren, a version 
of the perceptual model that generated most of the subjective films of the 
American avant-garde in the 1940s. Whenever that model is operating, a 
subject-object polarity is established in which the camera's relationship to 
the field of its view reflects the functions of a receptive mind to the objects 
of its perception. The metaphor of the dream permits the reflexive gesture 
of duplicating the presence of the film-maker (subject) or his mediator in 
front as well as behind the camera. The introduction of photographs or 
other iconic representations as objects of the camera's gaze merely adds 
another reflexive turn to the model without altering it. Thus Mother's Day 
postulates an organizing consciousness enmeshed in some variant of nos- 
talgia. Likewise the anamorphosis of Peterson's films pointed to a radically 
askew perspective grounded in a fictional being within whom the psycho- 
logical and intellectual tensions of each film converged. 

There is a comic or satiric element in the hyperbolic symbolism of 
Fireworks, as in almost everything Anger makes. The roots of Anger's 
aesthetic lie in French Romantic decadence of the late nineteenth century. 
Like his predecessors, he favors an art which argues with itself. For him 
it is not a matter of vacillation. Anger makes his films with an intense 
involvement in his subject and often an equally intense criticism of their 
limitations. The simultaneity of the prophetic and the satiric distinguishes 
the greatest Romantic art, and the failure of the classically oriented taste 
and criticism of our times has been not to credit the Romantics with a 
sense of humor and to ridicule their achievements with the same ridicule 
they practiced on themselves. The crucial difference, of course, is that Ro- 
mantic satire measures the limitations of its heroes in their quest for ab- 



solute freedom, while classical taste calls even the limited movement to- 
ward those ends grotesque. 

In Fireworks, poetic irony plays considerably less of a part than in all 
of Anger's later films. In Scorpio Rising it reaches its climax, as I shall 
show. Fireworks may be the strongest of the trance films. It is truly re- 
markable that a seventeen-year-old film-maker could make so intense an 
analysis of himself at a time when any allusion to homosexuality was 
taboo in the American cinema. But it is all the more remarkable that he 
invested his film with the critical humor of the false erection, the gas meter 
heart, the firecracker penis, and the Christmas tree miter. In 1947 Anger 
had not yet developed his feeling for the opposition of contraries or for 
total ambivalence as a structural principle in cinema. But the ironic sen- 
sibility had begun to manifest itself. 

Later Anger wrote, "This flick is all I have to say about being seven- 
teen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of 

Before we go on to consider his later films, I would like to call atten- 
tion to certain textural properties of Fireworks. The opposition between 
scenes in depth, with prominent foreground and background objects, and 
scenes of figures isolated in blackness has been indicated in my synopsis. 
There is a considerable amount of camera movement early in the film. 
Each movement is very steady and is punctuated so as to distinguish two 
visual facts. The opening dolly shot shows first the sailor, then reveals that 
he is holding a bloody body in his arms. The dolly across the bed shows 
first that the dreamer is asleep, then that he is alone. The pan up his pants 
as he is getting dressed shows him zipping up his fly, then fixes his torso 
in relation to the broken hand in the background. The dolly at the end of 
the film has three phases; first the dreamer is back in bed; then there is 
someone beside him; and finally the broken hand is repaired. 

It was a long time before he finished and released his next film, Eaux 
D'Artifice (1953). Its title might be translated "Water Works" 
("Fireworks" would be "Feux d'Artifice" in French), suggesting the di- 
alectical relation it has to the earlier film. Here we see the first mature 
development of the ironic sensibility and the balancing of contraries as a 
formal endeavor. One must not forget that although these two films are 
six years apart, Anger thinks of his films as a whole rather than as totally 
independent works. He is constantly revising them, subtly altering their 
relationships to one another. For the special program of his complete 
works at the Spring Equinox of 1966, he hand-tinted the candle atop the 
Christmas tree in Fireworks and the scratched-out face of the man in bed 
beside the dreamer to underline the relationship with Eaux d'Artifice, 
which ends soon after the appearance of a hand-tinted fan. 

In Eaux D'Artifice we see a baroque maze of staircases, fountains, 
gargoyles, and balustrades. A figure in eighteenth -century costume, flowing 
dress, and high headpiece hurries through this environment while the cam- 
era zooms into and away from the mask-like faces of water spirits carved 



in stone or studies in slow motion the fall of fountains and sprays. Just 
before the end of the film, the heroine flashes a fan, then turns into a 
fountain, and her silhouetted form dissolves into an identical fountain ar- 

The entire film has a deep blue color, achieved in the printing through 
the use of a filter. The sole exception is the brief flashing of the fan which 
the film-maker tinted green by hand. The whole film is successfully tuned 
to a fugue by Vivaldi. Unlike Fireworks, its interest is not narrative, but 
primarily rhythmic, and its elements are the pace of the heroine, the speed 
of the zooms, the slowness of the retarded waterfalls, and above all, the 
montage in relation to the music. 

In his early notes for the Cinema 16 catalogue, Anger describes this 
film as "the evocation of a Firbank heroine," and her flight as "the pursuit 
of the night moth." His new note is: 

eaux d'artifice: summer solstice 1953 

"Pour water on thyself: thus shalt thou be a Fountain to the 
universe. Find thou thyself in every Star! Achieve thou every 
possibility! " Khaled Khan, The Heart of the Master, Theorem V. 
Hide and seek in a nighttime labyrinth of levels, cascades, balus- 
trades, grottoes, and ever-gushing, leaping fountains, until the 
Water Witch and the Fountain become One. Dedicated to Pavel 
Tchelitchew. Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed, and 
Edited by Kenneth Anger. Cast: Carmillo Salvatorelli (The Water 
Witch). Music: Vivaldi. Filmed in the gardens of the Villa 
D'Este, Tivoli, by special permission of the Italian Department 
of Antiquities, on Ferrania Infra-Red. Printed on Ektachrome 
through a Cyan filter. The Fan of Exorcism hand tinted by Ken- 
neth Anger with Spectra Color. 5 

An earlier version of this note adds that Thad Lovett was the camera 
assistant and that the heroine's costume was designed by Anger. 

Anger has said that he chose Carmillo Salvatorelli, a midget, for the 
part in order to create a play of scale. The allusion to Firbank in the earlier 
note can be traced to the end of Ronald Firbank's novel, Yalmouth, where 
Niki-Esther, at the time of her marriage, went into the garden in pursuit 
of a butterfly, dressed in her wedding gown and carrying her bouquet. 

According to Tony Rayns: 

Anger's grandmother was a costume mistress in silent films, 
and it was she who, working with Reinhardt, got Kenneth into 
the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream. In his early youth Anger 
used to love dressing up in her costumes ("my transvestite pe- 
riod") and it was this that inspired the costume in Eaux 
d' Artifice, worn there by a circus dwarf Anger met in Italy. The 


Lady ("a Firbank heroine in pursuit of a nightmoth") owes her 
plumes to Anger's Reinhardt costume, and her light-headedness 
to her past in Anger's childhood. 6 

Eaux D' Artifice plays the same role in the evolution of Anger's style 
that Choreography for Camera played in Deren's. Both films are what I 
have labeled the single-image film, and both culminate in a union between 
protagonist and landscape. That Deren and Anger, as well as Curtis Har- 
rington and Stan Brakhage in their generation of film-makers, should fol- 
low the same course of formal invention is not an indication that one 
copied the other; it shows, however, the options open to serious, indepen- 
dent film-makers. Furthermore, the achievement of one artist in a given 
form — say the trance film — did not exhaust that form for the others. Many 
of the film-makers of that generation went in similar directions in their 
work at different times. The sequence of forms discovered by Maya Deren 
in her six films between 1943 and 1958 started a pattern that extended 
from the late 1940s through the 1960s. To this parallel evolution of dif- 
ferent film-makers I shall return repeatedly in this book. 

Between the completion of Fireworks and of Eaux D' Artifice Anger 
had initiated many projects. In 1948 he attempted to make a feature-length 
color film about faded Hollywood stars and their fantasy mansions. Soon 
after that the footage for The Love That Whirls, with simulated Mexican 
rituals in the nude, was destroyed by the laboratory to which it was sent 
for processing because they deemed it obscene. 

He moved to Paris in 1950, where he stayed on and off for the whole 
of that decade. There he began to shoot a 35mm black and white film 
called La Lune des Lapins, which he called "a lunar dream utilizing the 
classic pantomime figure of Pierrot in an encounter with a prankish, en- 
chanted Magic Lantern," but he ran out of money. The next year, 1951, 
he filmed in 16mm a version of Cocteau's ballet, Le Jeune Homme et La 
Mort, in the hope of raising money to make a 35mm film of the whole 
ballet. That financial endeavor also failed. 

For two years after that he prepared to film Lautreamont's Les Chants 
de Maldoror, again incorporating professional dancers from the Marquis 
de Cuevas's and Roland Petit's companies. He got no further in the pro- 
duction than rehearsals and tests. It was following the collapse of Mal- 
doror that he made Eaux D Artifice. A year later, in 1954, he returned to 
California to settle a family inheritance and made Inauguration of the 
Pleasure Dome with the money. 

There have been at least four versions of Inauguration of the Pleasure 
Dome at different times. The first, which no one to my knowledge has 
seen, was edited to a soundtrack by Harry Partch, the American composer 
and inventor of several exotic instruments. The version that was in distri- 
bution in the late 1950s and up to 1966 had Janacek's Glagolithic Mass 
for a soundtrack. For the second Experimental Film Competition, held 
during the Brussels World's Fair of 1958, he made a version with three- 



screen synchronous projection for the climactic final two-thirds of its forty 
minutes. In 1966 he issued his Sacred Mushroom version of the film, sub- 
titled "Lord Shiva's Dream," at the occasion of his Spring Equinox pro- 
gram at the Film-Makers' Cinematheque in New York. This version began 
with a reading of the whole of Coleridge's Kubla Khan, from which Anger 
derived the original title of the film, while still pictures of Aleister Crowley 
and images from the repertory of occult symbols and talismans appeared 
on the screen. To the first part of the film Anger had added some more 
photographs of Crowley in superimposition and images of the moon at 
strategic points. It was in the final third of the film, where once the images 
on two flanking screens had appeared, that he made his major changes. 
Superimposition, sometimes many layers deep, replaced the earlier linear 
development and montage. To the multiplication of his characters he 
added shots from Harry Lachman's Dante's Inferno, mainly crowd scenes 
of burning, printed in red, and most of Puce Moment, a fragment of the 
unmade Puce Women, which Anger had completed in 1949, distributed 
until 1963, and then withdrew from the public. He also mixed sounds of 
screaming with the music of Janacek, which he otherwise retained entirely. 

The opening sequence of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is one of 
Anger's finest cinematic achievements. A slow pan up the title card, with 
gold letters and lines against black, blends into a slow pan up over the 
edge of a bed, suggesting the breaking of dawn. The camera passes a 
constellation of glittering crystalline objects too close to be in focus. As 
the pan continues to ascend we perceive that it is a string of jewels we 
have been looking at. Now they are being slowly raised and wrapped 
around the hands of a yet unseen figure on the bed. 

A slow dissolve brings us closer to the hands, and the camera pans 
past them to the right to reveal a table with a pipe and several rings. This 
sequence continues for several minutes; most of the separate shots are 
joined by dissolves which underline the slow and hieratic quality of the 
gestures of the waking figure who, Anger tells us, is called Lord Shiva. He 
swallows the string of jewels, rises from the bed before an elaborate dragon 
mirror, passes through several doors and then beyond a Japanese curtain 
to perform his ritual cleansing before a three-sided mirror. It is here, as he 
leans forward to the mirror, that we see his first transformation: his face 
fades out, and we see a man-like beast with long fingernails filmed in red 
light. From Anger's notes, we know this is the hero's metamorphosis as 
Beast 666 of the Apocalypse, or simply the Great Beast. 

The lavish color of the rooms; their exquisite ornamentation; the slow 
movements of the camera and of Shiva; his sensual handling of objects; 
and the slightly elliptical sequence of dissolves which both cuts short each 
action and blends it into the next combine with the opening of Janacek's 
Mass to create a sequence of excessive richness and to set an intense ex- 
pectation for the film. 

Another upward pan, somewhat faster than the opening shot, reveals 
a woman in brilliant white clothes and make-up with flaming red hair 


isolated in blackness. She is Kali and the Scarlet Woman, according to 
Anger's notes. She turns her head to the right, then to the left, looking 
offscreen. In Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome the offscreen glance has 
the crucial function of relating the positions of the film's numerous char- 
acters to the central figures of Shiva and Kali. To a great extent the revi- 
sions of the Sacred Mushroom version have obscured this principle in the 
final third of the film, where superimposition has assumed the structural 
burden formerly based upon the geometry of offscreen looks and move- 

With the turn of her head the Scarlet Woman sees Shiva at his door. 
She turns again, and he has become the Great Beast. In a series of dissolves 
she discloses a tiny statue of a devil in her hands and offers it to him. In 
his hands it turns to fire. With that fire the Great Beast lights her cigarette, 
or "joint," for her. As she puffs it, we see a superimposed photograph in 
blue tint of Aleister Crowley smoking a pipe. 

In the opening passage of the film, Anger used drapery, painted walls, 
and rich costumes as the instruments of color control and color rhythm. 
In the following scenes, in which Shiva in his several guises receives the 
gifts of the gods, Anger gets his essential color alterations from filtered 
lights with which he spotlights his figures in black space. This recalls the 
two kinds of lighting and evocation of space in Fireworks and the color 
control of Eaux D : 'Artifice achieved through filtering (in that case, in the 
printing of the film, not in the lighting of the scene as in Inauguration). 

At this point in analyzing the film it would be useful to quote Anger's 


Sacred Mushroom Edition Spring Equinox 1966 
otherwise known as 'Lord Shiva's Dream' 

"A Eucharist of some sort should most assuredly be consumed 
daily by every magician, and he should regard it as the main 
sustenance of his magical life. It is of more importance than any 
other magical ceremony, because it is a complete circle. The 
whole of the force expended is completely re-absorbed; yet the 
virtue is that vast gain represented by the abyss between Man 
and God. 

"The magician becomes filled with God, fed upon God, in- 
toxicated with God. Little by little his body will become purified 
by the internal lustration of God; day by day his mortal frame, 
shedding its earthly elements, will become the very truth of the 
Temple of the Holy Ghost. Day by day matter is replaced by 
Spirit, the human by the divine; ultimately the change will be 
complete; God manifest in the flesh will be his name." — The 
Master Therion (Aleister Crowley), Magick in Theory and Prac- 



Lord Shiva. The Magician, wakes. A convocation of 
Theurgists in the guise of figures from mythology bearing gifts: 
The Scarlet Woman, Whore of Heaven, smokes a big fat joint; 
Astarte of the Moon brings the wings of snow: Pan bestows the 
bunch of Bacchus; Hecate offers the Sacred Mushroom, Yage. 
Wormwood Brew. The vintage of Hecate is poured: Pan's cup is 
poisoned by Lord Shiva. The Orgia ensues; a Magick masquer- 
ade party at which Pan is the prize. Lady Kali blesses the rites 
of the Children of the Light as Lord Shiva invokes the Godhead 
with the formula, "Force and Fire." Dedicated to the Few, and 
to Aleister Crowley; and to the Crowned and Conquering Child. 
Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed and Edited by Ken- 
neth Anger. Costumes. Lighting and Make-up by Kenneth An- 
ger. Properties and Setting courtesy Samson De Brier. Cast: Sam- 
son De Brier (Lord Shiva, Osiris, Cagliostro, Nero, The Great 
Beast 666); Cameron (The Scarlet Woman, Lady Kali); Kathryn 
Kadell (Isis); Renata Loome (Lilith); Anais Nin (Astarte); Ken- 
neth Anger (Hecate); the late Peter Loome (Ganymede). Music: 
Janacek. Filmed at Shiva's house, Hollywood, California, and 
another place. Printed by Kenneth Anger in Hand Lithography 
System on A,B,C,D, and E rolls, on Ektachrome 73877 

A note from the Cinema 16 New York premiere in 1956 gives a somewhat 
different synopsis of the same action: 

The Abbey of Thelema, the evening of the "sunset" of Crowley- 
anity. Lord Shiva wakes. Madam Satan presents the mandra- 
gore, and a glamor is cast. A convocation of enchantresses and 
theurgists. The idol is fed. Aphrodite presents the apple; Isis 
presents the serpent. Astarte descends with the witch-ball, the 
Fairy Geffe takes wing. The gesture of the Juggler invokes the 
Tarot Cups. The Elixir of Hecate is served by the Somnambulist. 
Pan's drink is venomed by Lord Shiva. The enchantment of Pan. 
Astarte withdraws with the glistening net of Love. The arrival of 
the Secret Chief. The Ceremonies of Consummation are presided 
over by the Great Beast-Shiva and the Scarlet Woman-Kali. 8 

In that cast of characters Aphrodite is played by Joan Whitney, the 
Somnambulist by Curtis Harrington, Renata Loome is called Sekmet 
(rather than Lilith), and Pan is listed as Paul Andre, although still other 
credits identify him as Paul Mathison, who also painted the title card. 

The ambiguity of roles and synopses points out the inessential nature 
of the identifications. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, like Deren's The 
Very Eye of Night and Markopoulos's The Illiac Passion, both made after 
it, is a mythographic film in its aspiration to visualize a plurality of gods. 
What is more important than the identification of characters in each of 


these difficult films is the way in which the film-maker sustains a vision of 
the divine in cinematic terms. Both Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome 
and The Illiac Passion, with their multiplication of divinities and their 
resolution through a central figure, present versions of the primary Ro- 
mantic myth of the fall of a unitary Man into separate, conflicting figures, 
a myth that dominates the prophetic writings of Blake and finds expression 
in the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. 

Each of the divine figures of the film offers a gift to Shiva in one of 
his forms after the lighting of the Scarlet Woman's "joint." The subsequent 
sequence, which parallels the dramatic entrances of Pan and Astarte, has 
a more complex structure. We see for the first time at this point the preview 
of a kind of superimposition that Anger employs repeatedly: two images, 
mirror inversions of each other, seen together. Later in his employment of 
this kind of superimposition of the Scarlet Woman, she will be seen looking 
both left and right, Janus-like. 

With a gradual shift of interest, the emphatic entrance of Pan becomes 
the equally emphatic entrance of Astarte. She lowers her mesh-stockinged 
feet on to a fur cushion; Shiva unwinds her blue dress; as she lifts her arms 
over her head in a circular motion, passing momentarily out of screen, a 
pearl in her hand changes first into a silver ball, and then, with another 
revolution, into a silver globe suggesting the moon. She gives it to Shiva. 
In two dissolves the globe shrinks again into a pearl, and he swallows it 
like a pill. Suddenly he sprouts tiny wings and smiles effeminately. 

In a scenic breakdown originally in French, presumably by Anger him- 
self, of the three-screen version of the film, the action I have so far de- 
scribed represents the first act ("The Talisman") in three scenes: 

scene i In the Abbey of Thelema, Lord Shiva wakes. 

scene 2 The Goddess Kali presents the mandragore, and the 
enchantment begins. 

scene 3 An assembly of magicians and theurgists transformed 
into Saints: Aphrodite, Isis, Lilith, Astarte offer their 
talisman, potent with the Powers of the Age of Horus: 
the God of Ecstasy and Violence, the God of Fire and 
Flame. Pan arrives bearing Hermes' gift. 

That much of the film was to be on a single screen. The following two 
acts, of three and two scenes respectively, were on a triptych. 

What Anger called the second act ("The Banquet of Poisons") begins 
as the Great Beast, with the Scarlet Woman beside him, snaps his fingers 
and Cesare, the Somnambulist, taken from Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. 
Caligari, appears behind his hand. The film-maker Curtis Harrington plays 
this role in white make-up and black tights. Like his prototype in the 1919 
film, he walks stiffly with arms outstretched. The Beast points and the 
sleepwalker leaves the frame. The next shot, joined to the previous one by 
a dissolve, is one of the most impressive in the film: the Somnambulist 

9 8 



(a) Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: Lord Shiva eats the jewels. 

(b) The Great Beast lights the "joint" of the Scarlet Woman, with a superimposi- 
tion of Aleister Crowley. 

(c) The arrival of Pan. 

(d) Serving the elixir. 

passes a row of candles and approaches a black wall, upon which are 
drawn Egyptian cats. As he nears the wall a passage opens in it, and he 
passes into a bright and silken sanctum where his zigzag movements are 
only occasionally glimpsed by the camera. In one of the later versions of 
the film, Anger has superimposed a cartoon of Crowley's face over the 
image so that the door opens not only to the sanctum but into Crowley's 

Another dissolve brings us into the sanctum where Cesare takes an 
amphora from the masked figure of Hecate. He pours a powder-like sub- 
stance from the amphora for the Beast and the Scarlet Woman. Shiva 
makes a magical gesture (Anger identified it as the Tarot of the Juggler) 
and two chalices rise by his sides. In this passage, the montage returns 
again and again to Shiva's eyes, glancing demonically from his green-tinted 


(e) Pan poisoned. 

(f) A mirror image superimposition from the orgia. 

(g) Lady Kali blesses the rites before the fires of Hell. 

(h) Lord Shiva invokes the godhead. 

face. Soon the child Ganymede makes his first appearance, pouring drinks 
for Shiva, Pan, and Lilith, who are gathered in a single composition with 
three different tints — Shiva, purple, Pan, yellow, Lilith, red. Shiva pours 
poison into Pan's drink from the hidden chamber in his ring. Pan drinks 
and clutches his neck. 

At this point the linear development of the film evaporates; the mul- 
tiple superimposition begins. There are no more dissolves; the pace changes 
from slow to frenzied. Only at strategic moments, as will be pointed out, 
does a single image appear on the screen without superimposition. 

Astarte unfolds her net over the changing images of gods and god- 
desses. Suddenly we see Pan, without superimposition, possessed by the 
poison. There is a fade-out. We return to a triple superimposition of As- 
tarte dancing with her net over the images of the revelers. Then a veiled 
figure emerges from the sanctum over the superimposition of the gold and 


black title card. Again the action returns to Astarte's dance, sometimes 
seen from three different camera depths simultaneously. Pan is attacked 
and beaten with feathers. The goddesses' feet kick and press his chest, 
while the first images of the hell fire of Dante's Inferno enter the texture 
of the film. This is the fated sparagmos for which the orgy was convened. 

Then the Scarlet Woman appears in her manifestation as Kali, seated 
on a throne with one breast bare. The superimposition ceases as she sur- 
veys the scene. The hell fires shoot up behind her. Sometimes her image 
appears over that of Shiva whose hand gestures control the orgy; other 
times we see three different views of her at once. 

The camera dollies in on the single image of the veiled figure dancing 
wildly. The pace of the zooms on the masked dancer increases with the 
intensity of Pan's sparagmos until, at the end of the film, Kali raises her 
hand in benediction, and Shiva smiles and gestures with his hands. After 
a montage of occult symbols, including a pentacle and the eye of Horus, 
the image fades out on a single shot of Shiva bringing his hands together. 

Even with the introduction of superimposition, the disjunctive editing 
of the dances of Astarte and the masked figure and the introduction of 
material from two completely different films, the scenario of the Sacred 
Mushroom version is not so different from the outline of the three-screen 
projection, in which the three scenes of the second act ("The Banquet of 
Poisons") are, 

scene i The Somnambulist brings the Elixir of Hecate. Com- 
munion of the Saints: "You are Holy; whose nature is 
unformed; You are holy, the great and powerful Mas- 
ter of light and darkness." 

scene 2 The drink of Pan is poisoned by an aphrodisiac- 
initiatory powder that Shiva had hidden in a chamber 
of his ring. The intoxication of Pan. 

scene 3 Astarte's return with the net of Love. 

The third act ("The Ceremonies of Consummation") has two scenes: 

scene 1 The arrival of the Secret Chief. The invocation of the 

Holy Fire. The Infinite Ritual, 
scene 2 The ceremonies of consummation are presided over by 

Shiva and Kali, The Whore of Babylon and The Great 

Beast of the Apocalypse. 

Anger told Take One magazine about the sources of this film in the 
work of Crowley: 

The film is derived from one of Crowley's dramatic rituals 
where people in the cult assume the identity of a god or a god- 
dess. In other words, it's the equivalent of a masquerade party — 


they plan this for a whole year and on All Sabbaths Eve they 
come as the gods and goddesses that they have identified with 
and the whole thing is like an improvised happening. 

This is the actual thing the film is based on. In which the 
gods and goddesses interact and in The Inauguration of the 
Pleasure Dome it's the legend of Bacchus that's the pivotal thing 
and it ends with the God being torn to pieces by the Bacchantes. 
This is the underlying thing. But rather than using a specific rit- 
ual, which would entail quite a lot of the spoken word as ritual 
does, I wanted to create a feeling of being carried into a world 
of wonder. And the use of color and phantasy is progressive; in 
other words, it expands, it becomes completely subjective — like 
when people take communion; and one sees it through their 
eyes. 9 

In a British newspaper, Friends, he spoke of the costumes of Scorpio 
Rising, with a relevance to the concerns here: 

Even in fancy dress films the people are still as I see them and 
how they see themselves. In Rio you have people who live in 
shanty towns and save up all year for the fab costume that 
they will wear for the Carnival, and that's what they live for 
the whole year. For that spangled moment: and during the Car- 
nival when they're all dressed up, that's really them, it's not 
them when they are working, sweeping the street or doing some- 
body's washing. 10 

In a film of the complexity of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome one 
has to turn from the film-maker's program notes to the myth of the film 
itself. Everything in the film, as it is now available in the Sacred Mushroom 
edition, must be measured in terms of the figure of the Magus. The essen- 
tial tension of the film rests on the resolution of the Magus' several aspects 
into a unified, redeemed man, or man made god, to use Anger's terms. 
The final shot of the film is the turbanned Shiva completing the semicir- 
cular hand gesture he had been making throughout the climax of the film; 
the Magus' apotheosis, the Great Beast, Nero, Cagliostro, and the winged 
Geffe are reunited. Not only they, but all the actors of the film are sub- 
sumed in his power and glory. If, as Anger's remarks suggest, these char- 
acters are most themselves when assuming the personae of gods, they sac- 
rifice their "spangled moment" to the central energy of the Magus; for 
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is not an apocalypse of liberated gods 
or chaotic demons, nor is it a perversion of the myth of Pentheus and 
Dionysus, in which the god is devoured, although Pan is as much the 
"eucharist" in this film as the potion of Hecate. What divinity the others 
obtain comes through the Magus. 


For the spectator, the Sacred Mushroom version fuses the perspectives 
of Shiva with Pan. The opening of the film, with a solemnity and slowness 
of action suggestive of the traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki theaters, 
dramatizes the hierophant's point of view. Immediately after the poisoning 
of Pan, the style switches to the delirium of the intoxicated god, with a 
punctuation of shots of Kali and Shiva from the sober perspective of con- 
trol. Disregarding the notes again, we see that Shiva's most spectacular act 
is the transformation of the Scarlet. Woman into Kali when she reappears 
as the diabolic female in the superimposition sequence over the flames of 
hell. Ultimately, she too must be subsumed into the Magus. 11 

The recurrent theme of the American avant-garde film is the triumph 
of the imagination. Nowhere is this clearer than in the films of Anger. 
Here it triumphs over the superficiality of the masquerade, the campiness 
of the actors, and the shabbiness of Hollywood's reconstruction of Dante's 
hell. The opposition of the reality principle and the imagination, which I 
mentioned in discussing Fireworks, operates more covertly in this film. It 
is in his next completed work, Scorpio Rising, that this dialectical process 
reaches its maturity and becomes the organizing principle of the film. 

There is nearly a decade between the two works. We do not know 
what formal evolution might have been shown in his version of The Story 
of O, which he prepared in the late fifties but never shot. In a history of 
ruined projects, stolen films, and works aborted due to insufficient funds, 
the abandonment of The Story of O, in part because one of the actors 
turned out to be involved in a kidnapping, reaches outrageous dimensions. 
In 1955 Anger managed to complete a documentary film of the erotic 
paintings Crowley made for his Thelema Abbey in Sicily, but that film is 
either lost or Anger does not want to show it. In i960 J. J. Pauvert pub- 
lished his Hollywood-Babylon. In 1962 Anger returned to the United 
States, and while living in the Brooklyn apartment of the film-makers Wil- 
lard Maas and Marie Menken, began to make Scorpio Rising. 

Scorpio Rising is built around the ironic interaction of thirteen popular 
songs with the same number of schematic episodes in the life of a motor- 
cycle gang. The quotation from Crowley with which Anger prefaces his 
note to the film refers to his use of the songs: 

It may be conceded in any case that the long strings of formida- 
ble words which roar and moan through so many conjurations 
have a real effect in exalting the consciousness of the magician 
to the proper pitch — that they should do so is no more extraor- 
dinary than music of any kind should do so. 

Magicians have not confined themselves to the use of the 
human voice. The pan-pipe with its seven stops, corresponding 
to the seven planets, the bull-roarer, the tom-tom, and even the 
violin, have all been used, as well as many others, of which the 
most important is the bell, though this is used not so much for 
actual conjuration as to mark stages in the ceremony. Of all 


these the tom-tom will be found the most generally useful. (The 
Master Therion, Magick in Theory and Practice.) 

The body of the note divides the film into four parts: 

A conjuration of the Presiding Princes, Angels, and Spirits of 
the Sphere of mars, formed as a "high" view of the Myth of 
the American Motorcyclist. The Power Machine seen as tribal 
totem, from toy to terror. Thanatos in chrome and black leather 
and bursting jeans. Part I: Boys & Bolts: (masculine fascination 
with the Thing that Goes). Part II: Image Maker (getting high 
on heroes: Dean's Rebel and Brando's Johnny: the True View of 
J. C). Part III: Walpurgis Party (J. C. wallflower at cycler's 
Sabbath). Part IV: Rebel Rouser (The Gathering of the Dark 
Legions, with a message from Our Sponsor). Dedicated to Jack 
Parsons, Victor Childe, Jim Powers, James Dean, T. E. Lawrence, 
Hart Crane, Kurt Mann, The Society of Spartans, The Hell's 
Angels, and all overgrown boys who will ever follow the whistle 
of Love's brother. Credits: Conceived, Directed, Photographed, 
and Edited by Kenneth Anger. Cast: Bruce Byron (Scorpio); 
Johnny Sapienza (Taurus); Frank Carifi (Leo); John Palone (Pin- 
stripe); Ernie Alio (The Life of the Party); Barry Rubin (Pledge); 
Steve Crandell (The Sissy Cyclist). Music: Songs interpreted by 
Ricky Nelson, Little Peggy March, The Angels, Bobby Vinton, 
Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, The Crystals, The Ron-Dells, Kris 
Jensen, Claudine Clark, Gene McDaniels, The Surfaris. Filmed 
in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Walden's Pond, New York, on Ek- 
tachrome ER. 12 

With Scorpio Rising Anger began to refer to some of his films as "Puck 
Productions." A credit with that name appears before anything else in the 
film. On it we see a Bottom-like ass with a banner reading, "What Fools 
these Mortals Be," a reference not only to A Midsummer Night's Dream 
but also to Anger's own childhood performance in the Max Reinhardt film 
version. In the penultimate section of Scorpio, as the motorcycle race is in 
full swing, we see a brief shot of Mickey Rooney, as Reinhardt's Puck, cut 
into the film as if he were cheering on the riders. In this brief instance of 
the injection of the image from the Hollywood film into the action of his 
own film, Anger establishes a series of intellectual vibrations which reach 
to the core of his dialectical vision. In the present case, we are struck first 
by the wit of the juncture; then, as we remember the antics of Shake- 
speare's Puck, we realize that he is cheering them on to their deaths; and 
finally, we recognize the ironic loss of intensity implicit in the use of Hol- 
lywood's, not Shakespeare's, Puck. 

The lyrics of the songs — ironic because they are "found objects" from 
popular culture — comment upon and qualify our thoughts about the visual 


images. The intensity and complexity of the ironies vary greatly from song 
to song; nevertheless, the end of one song and the beginning of another is 
a dramatic highlight at every transition, and the spectator awaits eagerly 
the detonating image which will fuse the next song to the next episode. 

Each of the thirteen sections has a comic highlight or a dramatic sur- 
prise. Often the very first shot of a new sequence marks a visual collision 
with what we have been watching; often Anger holds his punch shot half 
a minute until the central phrase of the song's lyrics has been uttered so 
that the interaction of picture and sound will be synchronous. The force 
with which he achieves this is concentrated in the central episodes of the 

The first four sections of Scorpio Rising form an introduction to the 
film. From the very first shots — the unveiling of a motorcycle in a garage, 
then a series of horizontal and vertical pans of bike parts, lights, shining 
chrome fenders, young men oiling gears — it is clear that the texture of the 
film is unlike anything Anger has done before. This is a film almost without 
superimposition, filtered lights, or isolated figures in blackness. Anger still 
uses the coordination of the offscreen look, especially in collaging foreign 
material. The low-key lighting makes possible a lush pastel view of mo- 
torcycle cushions, lights, and portions of chrome with stars of light reflect- 
ing off them. As usual the camera movements are steady and slow, but 
the rhythm of the film as a whole is much quicker than anything Anger 
had ever made before. 

The comic moment of the first scene comes at its end. Framed by quick 
zooms in on a plaster scorpion, the back of a cyclist rises before a red 
wall, and as he ascends, we can gradually read the title Scorpio Rising 
spelled out in silver studs on the back of his leather jacket. When he is 
standing erect, we see "Kenneth Anger" studded at the belt line. He turns 
around, revealing his bare chest and navel as the song and episode end. 
The subsequent segment simply prolongs a single metaphor: the montage 
compares motorcyclists tightening bolts to a child winding up three toy 
cycles and letting them roll at the camera. The song "Wind-Up Doll" un- 
derlines the comparison. 

The unveiling, greasing, shining, and completing of the motorcycles in 
the introductory series of episodes exaggerate the preparatory stage of the 
film, a stage which has always been important for Anger, as in the waking 
and costuming sections of Fireworks and Inauguration, and suggest that 
a climactic show-down is forthcoming. The first intimation of disaster oc- 
curs in the third episode, also of motorcycle polishing and fitting, which 
opens and closes with views of a Grim Reaper skeleton in a black velvet 
hood surveying the cyclist and his machine. We hear the threatening lyrics 
of the song, "My boyfriend's back and there's gonna be trouble. ..." 

Anger once described his finding the fourth song as an example of 
"magick." He said that he had completed the selection for all the other 
songs and needed something to go with this episode, in which three cyclists 
at different locations ritually dress themselves in leather and chains with 


the montage continually jumping from one to the other. Anger turned on 
his radio and exercised his will. Out came Bobby Vinton's "She wore blue 
velvet," which when joined to the episode created precisely the sexual 
ambiguity Anger wanted in this scene. In fact, there is a brief cut in the 
middle of the episode as one bare-chested cyclist leans forward toward the 
camera and the image switches to the crotch of another as he zips his 
pants, suggesting fellatio. Similar eroticized montages occur later in the 
film, as when the hero kisses the plaster scorpion, his totem, for good luck, 
and the image quickly cuts to the bare navel of another cyclist. 

The next four song-episodes, forming the second part of the film or 
"The Image Maker," as the notes call it, comprise its core and culminate 
in the "Heat Wave" and "He's a Rebel" episodes, which represent Anger's 
clearest and most intricate thought on the dialectics of reality and imagi- 
nation. The previous part had ended as a fully-dressed cyclist wheeled his 
bike out of the garage. The sudden appearance on the screen of a frame 
of Li'l Abner comics introduces Scorpio, the hero of the film. We see him 
lying in bed reading the funnies as Elvis Presley sings "You look like an 
angel, but you're the devil in disguise." His room is a vast metaphor; its 
walls exhibit a virtual catalogue of his unconscious, in the same way that 
the cluttered walls of many American adolescents, where everything mean- 
ingful to them is tacked and pasted, represent the contents of the uncon- 
scious. Thus, without resorting to expressionism, as in the gents room of 
Fireworks, Anger shows us an iconographic space that is also a real space. 
On the walls are pictures of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and a Nazi 
swastika. There is also a television, turned on through the series of epi- 
sodes in this room. It functions as an aesthetic reactor. Whatever we 
glimpse on it is always a metaphor for what is happening within the hero 
of the film. Its metaphoric level extends simultaneously as an aesthetic 
dimension of Scorpio's thought and action in the realm of plastic illusion 
and as an icon of contemporary life — the source as well as the reflection 
of the unconscious. It is from the images on this television that Anger gets 
his most interesting collage effects. 

After his own ritual costuming to the sound of "Hit the Road, Jack," 
ending in his putting on rings quite like the opening of Inauguration, Scor- 
pio takes a sniff of a drug, perhaps "crystal meth" or cocaine. Here we 
have an exultant image of Romantic liberation when the most interiorized 
of the songs in the film, "Heat Wave," is combined with an image on the 
television of birds escaping from a cage, and then, amid two-frame flashes 
of bright red, a gaudy, purple picture of Dracula. We see in one or two 
seconds of cinema the re-creation of a high Romantic, or Byronic myth of 
the paradox of liberation. This brief montage evokes both tremendous 
liberation and tremendous limitation; the liberation inherent in the exu- 
berant enthusiasm of the editing and the ecstatic pace of the music, and 
the simultaneous limitation in that the sudden "ace of light," as Michael 
McClure calls a sniff of cocaine, comes from a bottle and a powder; it is 
exterior. The image of the monster is just a gaudy photograph, and the 


freed birds are in the end just a couple of pigeons on television. Although 
I have to describe these contradictory aspects of the cinematic experience 
sequentially, they occur simultaneously in watching the film. 

From this point on, the entire film is structured around the interaction 
of contraries. In the "Heat Wave" episode the initial flash from the drug 
blends into images of his heroes. Scorpio is intercut with photos of James 
Dean. Marlon Brando appears on the television, in his motorcycle film, 
The Wild One. When we catch sight of him he has an interiorized smile, 
his eyes are closed, and he too seems to have just sniffed cocaine. When 
Scorpio puts on his jacket, we see the skull on the back of Brando's. 13 

At the end of the scene, Scorpio repudiates his heroes; for Anger's 
vision of the myth of the American motorcyclist argues passionately with 
the tepid social morality of Brando's and Dean's films. Next to the Pro- 
methean Scorpio, they are "bad boys" from Boys' Town. So Scorpio draws 
his gun on a still of Gary Cooper from the show-down in High Noon, 
and he points it into the television, but Brando is no longer there; instead 
we see first a Hebrew menorah and then a crucifix as the objects of his 
attack. At this point he kisses the scorpion and leaves his room. 

In the course of the film there is a transition from minor to major 
heroes, from movie stars to the charismatic powers who have shaken the 
world. The first example, which we meet in the coming episode, is Christ; 
the second, later, is Hitler. The gunning of the menorah and the crucifix 
established the context of interpretation for the following sequence. As the 
camera follows the boots of the hero through the street to the music of 
"He's a rebel, and we'll never know the reason why," we are prepared for 
the comic highlight of the film. From Family Films's The Road to Jerusa- 
lem, we see Christ parading past his followers. Like the heroes in photo- 
graphs and on television, this Christ comes to us at one remove. The space 
abruptly shifts from the colored scenes of Anger's photography to a flat, 
blue-tinted black-and-white image in the intercuttings. True to the high 
Romantic tradition, of which Anger himself may be only dimly aware, the 
heroic Christ is wrenched from the traditional Christian interpretation. 
Through the montage we learn what Scorpio would do if he were Christ, 
or perhaps what he thinks Christ really must have done: when Christ ap- 
proaches the blind beggar, Scorpio would have kicked him, as he kicks 
the wheel of his motorcycle, and would have given him a ticket for loiter- 
ing, as a cop places a parking violation on the bike; Christ touches the 
blind man's eyes; through a very quick intercut we see that Scorpio would 
have shown him a "dirty picture"; and when the beggar goes down on his 
knees before Christ, Scorpio offers him his stiff penis. 

Scorpio Rising is a mythographic film. It self-consciously creates its 
own myth of the motorcyclist by comparison with other myths: the dead 
movie star, Dean; the live one, Brando; the savior of men, Christ; the 
villain of men, Hitler. Each of these myths is evoked in ambiguity, without 
moralizing. From the photos of Hitler and a Nazi soldier and from the 
use of swastikas and other Nazi impedimenta, Scorpio derives ecstasy of 


will and power. Scorpio Rising is a more sophisticated version than Anger 
had ever before achieved of the erotic dialogue. In this film he is no longer 
describing the visionary search for the self, as he had in Inauguration, but 
presenting an erotic version of the contraries of the self. 

In all but the last of the remaining five song-episodes, Anger continues 
to compare motorcyclists to Family Films's Christ. Flashing lights in the 
spokes of a motorcycle introduce the "Walpurgis Party." Here, to the mu- 
sic of "Party Lights," the cyclists come in costume. One wears a skeleton 
suit through which his penis protrudes. Their entry is meshed with a pro- 
cession of Hollywood disciples obsequiously accepting the invitation to 
enter a house. When Christ himself is seated, the song changes to "Tor- 
ture" and his offscreen looks are intercut with the party to give the im- 
pression that he is supervising the members of the gang who have started 
to smear hot mustard on the bare crotch of one of their comrades. Scorpio 
has arrived at the party, but he quickly leaves to explore, with a phallically 
placed flashlight, a church altar, draped with a Nazi flag. 

In the party episodes the camera movement is looser and faster than 
anywhere else in Anger's work. In hand-held sweeps, it follows the pranks 
of the cyclists — dropping their pants, poking a woman with a bare penis, 
slapping each others' asses like a tom-tom, sending someone pantless on 
his cycle out into the night, and pouring on the mustard. Toward the end 
of the "Torture" section, the camera regains its calm horizontal and ver- 
tical panning. A ceramic of Christ's face passes the screen. Scorpio points 
downward from the altar, and the camera, following his finger, shows us 
quivering buttocks brutally beaten. In the initial version of the film, which 
has undergone very few important changes, a shot of a plastic bottle of 
"Leather Queen" stood where the sadistic image now appears. 

In the final three sections of the film, Scorpio, still standing on the 
altar which he progressively desecrates, directs a motorcycle race in an 
open field. As the cyclists rev up their bikes at the starting line, Christ is 
hoisted onto a donkey side-saddle. It is "The Point of No Return," as the 
accompanying song tells us. The hero, in a black leather mask with a Luger 
in one hand and a skull and crossbones flag in the other, signals the riders 
on. The one superimposition of the film occurs when the image of the 
scorpion hovers behind the waving death flag. In the second part of the 
race, to the song, "I will follow him," Scorpio reaches the height of his 
demonic possession. The montage suggests that he is a diabolical Puck in 
a collage previously discussed. Before pictures of Hitler and pans over Nazi 
parade troops, he urinates in his helmet and holds it high on the altar as 
his offering. Then he kicks books off the altar and leaves in the night. 

A pastel sketch opens the final scene. It is a skeleton head smoking a 
cigarette labeled "Youth." At the sound of a cash register or a slot ma- 
chine, a picture of Christ guiding a clean-cut young man appears in the 
skeleton's eye socket. "Wipe Out" is the last song. The images are the 
most abstract of the film: a montage of Nazi pictures, flags, even swastika 
checkers. Briefly we see Scorpio with a submachine gun shouting orders. 



A cyclist crashes in the race and presumably dies. The final images of the 
film show a red flickering police car light rhythmically intercut with the 
face of a cyclist filmed in infra-red so that he too is red against a black 
background. The end title is written in studs on a leather belt. 

Tony Rayns, in his analysis of the film, 14 says that Scorpio is the mo- 
torcyclist who dies. I see no evidence for this. The death is the sacrifice 
that Scorpio demands. It, and not the winning of a race, has been the 
obvious culmination of the film from the beginning, as Pan's sparagmos 
had been needed to inaugurate the pleasure dome. 

In Anger's booklet of notes on the Magick Lantern Cycle of 1966 he 
provided the following schematic autobiography: 

Sun Sign Aquarian 

Rising Sign Scorpio 

Ruling Planet Uranus 

Energy Component Mars in Taurus 

Type Fixed Air 

Lifework magick 

Magical Weapon Cinematograph 

Religion Thelemite 

Deity Horus the Avenger; The Crowned and Conquering Child 

Magical Motto "Force and Fire" 

Holy Guardian Angel mi-ca-el 

Affinity Geburah 

Familiar Mongoose 

Antipathy Saturn and all His Works 

Characteristic Left-handed fanatic craftsman 

Politics Reunion with England 

Hobbies Hexing enemies; tap dancing; Astral projection; travel; 

talisman manufacture; Astrology; Tarot Cards; Collage 
Heroes Flash Gordon; Lautreamont; William Beckford; Melies; 

Alfred C. Kinsey; Aleister Crowley 
Library Big Little Books; L. Frank Baum; M. P. Shiel; Aleister 


Sightings Several saucers; the most recent a lode-craft over 

Hayes and Harlington, England, February 1966 
Ambitions Many, many, many more films; Space travel 
Magical numbers 11; 31; 9 3 15 

Formally, Scorpio Rising's precursor (by a few years at most) was 
Bruce Conner's second film, Cosmic Ray. Whether or not Anger had seen 
the film is hardly relevant here, as I can hardly believe it had a direct 
influence upon him. Nevertheless, Conner should be credited as the first 
film-maker to employ ironically a popular song as the structural unit in a 
collage film. The title of his film is a pun, referring both to Ray Charles, 
whose song "Tell me what I say" forms the sound track of the film, as 


well as to atomic particles from outer space. Conner intercut material 
which is primarily the irreverent dance of a naked woman, which he pho- 
tographed himself, with stock shots from old war films, advertisements, a 
western, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, etc., ridiculing warfare as a sexual sub- 
limation. The structure of the ideas evoked by Conner's collage is straight- 
forward; unlike Anger's film, there is little room for ambiguity in Cosmic 

In the sequence of Anger's films, there is an evolution of forms from 
the late forties through the sixties which will recur again and again in the 
works of his contemporaries. The shift is from the trance film to the myth- 
opoeic film. Both forms assert the primary of the imagination; the first 
through dream, the second through ritual and myth. Almost all of the film- 
makers discussed so far in this book have moved through these two stages 
at almost the same time. The development of Maya Deren's formal concern 
with cinema had been from dream {Meshes of the Afternoon) to ritual 
{Ritual in Transfigured Time) and myth {The Very Eye of Night). The cases 
of Peterson and Broughton are exceptional; they do not fit the pattern 
neatly, but that is because the former stopped making films in 1949 and 
the latter left the medium for so long before returning to it. 

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome was the first major work to herald 
the emerging mythic form in the American avant-garde film. In its initial 
form, in 1954, it was closer to Maya Deren's concept of a cinematic ritual 
than to what would emerge in the 1960s as the mythopoeic cinema — 
Scorpio Rising, Markopoulos's Twice a Man (1963) and The Illiac Passion 
(1968), Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1961-1966), Harry Smith's Heaven and 
Earth Magic (approx. 1950-1960). In that early version the Kabuki-like 
pace of the opening part extended throughout the film; its formal opera- 
tion was like the choreography in Ritual in Transfigured Time. After In- 
auguration of the Pleasure Dome, the mythic form emerged in Deren's The 
Very Eye of Night (1958) and Maas's Narcissus (1958). In all three in- 
stances the film-makers sought to represent specific myths and mytholog- 
ical figures. The triumph of the mythopoeic film in the early sixties sprang 
from the film-makers' liberation from the repetition of traditional my- 
thology and the enthusiasm with which they forged a cinematic form for 
the creation or revelation of new myths. Scorpio Rising is an excellent 
example of this new vitality. 

Immediately after the success of Scorpio Rising, Anger tried to apply 
the very same formal invention to a similar theme, the custom car builder. 
Early in 1964 the Ford Foundation experimented with giving a few inde- 
pendent film-makers grants of ten thousand dollars. After their initial 
grants, they discontinued the experiment. Anger was fortunate enough to 
be among the recipients. With his money he made some slight revisions of 
Scorpio Rising, created the Sacred Mushroom version of Inauguration, and 
began Kustom Kar Kommandos. The film was never completed. In 1965 
he showed an episode, similar to some of the opening scenes of Scorpio, 
in which a young man polishes his finished car with a giant powder puff. 



The pastel colors and the fluid movement (the car seems to be turning on 
a giant turntable) are even richer than similar effects in his previous film. 
Like Scorpio, too, this episode had as its soundtrack a single rock and roll 
song, "Dream Lover." At the end of the sequence as he showed it, Anger 
appended an appeal for funds to finish the film. Those funds never ap- 
peared and Kustom Kar Kommandos was abandoned. Anger has left its 
one episode, resuscitating the form of the fragment as he had done when 
he distributed Puce Moment from Puce Women. 

Fortunately a prospectus survives for the complete KKK. It is repro- 
duced here in its entirety. It is interesting to note that the "Dream Lover" 
segment is not to be found within it: 


(kustom kar kommandos film project) 

Film project by Kenneth Anger utilizing the Eastman rapid color 
emulsion Ektachrome ER, whose ASA rating of 125 opens up 
hitherto inaccessible realms of investigation in low-key color lo- 
cation work for the independent creative film-maker. Running 
time 30 minutes, track composed of pop music fragments com- 
bined with sync location-recorded sound effects and dialog. 

kustom is an oneiric vision of a contemporary American (and 
specifically Californian) teenage phenomenon, the world of the 
hot-rod and customized car. I emphasize the word oneiric, as 
kustom will not be a "documentary" covering the mechanical 
hopping-up and esthetic customizing of cars, but rather a dream- 
like probe into the psyche of the teenager for whom the unique 
aspect of the power -potentialized customized car represents a 
poetic extension of personality, an accessible means of wish- 
fulfillment. I will treat the custom cars created by the teenager 
and his adult mentors (such customizers as Ed Roth, Bill Cush- 
enberry and George Barris, whose Kustom City in North Holly- 
wood is a mecca of this world) as the objects of art — folk art if 
you prefer — that I consider them to be. 

The aforementioned adult "mentors," most of whom are located 
in the periphery of Los Angeles and hence readily accessible for 
filming, will be shown at work in their body shops on various 
cars-in-the-process-of-becoming, in the role of "arch-priests" to 
the teenagers whose commission they are fulfilling. (The locales 
of body shops and garages will be presented uniquely in gleam- 
ing highlighted low-key, in a manner already essayed for the 
motorcycle garage locations of scorpio rising); the idolized 
customizers (the only adults seen in the film) will be represented 
as shadowy, mysterious personages (priests or witch-doctors) 
while the objects of their creation, the cars, will bathe in a pool 



of multi-sourced (strictly non-realistic) light, an eye-magnet of 
nacreous color and gleaming curvilinear surfaces. 

The treatment of the teenager in relation to his hot-rod or cus- 
tom car (whether patiently and ingeniously fashioned by himself, 
as is usually the case, or commissioned according to his fantasy, 
for the economically favored) will bring out what I see as a defi- 
nite eroticization of the automobile, in its dual aspect of narcis- 
sistic identification as virile power symbol and its more elusive 
role: seductive, attention-grabbing, gaudy or glittering 
mechanical mistress paraded for the benefit of his peers. (I am 
irresistably drawn to the comparison of these machines with an 
American cult-object of an earlier era, Mae West in her "Dia- 
mond Lil" impersonations of the Thirties.) 

The formal filmic construct of kustom is planned as follows: 
(The division into titled "sections" is uniquely for working con- 
venience; these divisions will be "erased" in the finished work.) 
The dominant pop record is indicated in capitals. 

1. have money (The Young Conformers.) An introduction in- 
sinuating the spectator into the teen-dream. A fast-shifting visual 
reverie utilizing the linking device of the lap-dissolve and the 
wipe to establish patterns of convention followed by the teenage 
(and sub-teen) group: similarity of hair-styling, style of dress, of 
language, attitude or manner, taste in dance patterns and pop 
music; the omniscience of certain popular heroes or ever-shifting 
masks on Archetypal Images. 

2. dawn (Crystalization.) The concept of individual "style" 
dawns upon the Teenager. The carefully composed aerodynam- 
ics of a crested coiffure as it is formed. The love-lock. Racked 
sideburns. The embroidered, self-identifying jacket or painted T- 
shirt. The "far-out" color combinations in stove-pipe pants, 
shock-effect shirts and socks. The Grail: the vision of the Teen- 
ager as Owner of his own, screamingly individualistic, unique 
and personalized custom car. (These images of the Grail, "the 
goal," will be floated across the mirrored image of the Teenager 
as he arranges his coiffure or clothes.) Subliminal flashes as [he] 
thumbs through hot-rod magazines or plays juke-box. Closeups 
of high-school desk tops showing open text books (Science or 
History) while adolescent hands doodle, first crudely, then with 
increasing refinement, silhouettes of hot-rod and custom 
"dream" cars. 

3. the nitty-gritty (Realization.) The Teenager attacks. 
Dream into action. Abrupt change in formal construct: sharp 
cuts, swift pans, darting dollies. The night-lit junk-yard, weird 



derelict cemetery: lifting a "goodie." The first jalopie: a rusty 
junked car pushed into the dark initiatory cave of the garage. 
Series of car-frames in the process of being stripped: an almost 
savage dismantling (analogy to wild animals dismembering a 

4. my guy (The Rite.) Under the occult guidance of the shad- 
owy, mysterious adult customizers performing as Arch-Priest, 
the Teenager's Dream Car is born (allusion to obstetrics). The 
alchemical elements come into play: phosphorescent blue tongue 
of the welding flame, cherry glow of joins, spark shower of the 
buffer. Major operation: dropping the front, raising the back of 
the car, "channeling" and "chopping." The Priest-Surgeon (cus- 
tomizer) perfects the metal modulations from cardboard mock- 
ups; plunges in with blowtorch and mallet. The swooping 
sculpted forms (blackened and rough) materialize in closeups 
and their intent is perceived. 

5. in his kiss (The Adorning.) Sudden darting color: the rain- 
bow array as cans are opened, stirred dripping gaudy sticks held 
up for the Teenager's contemplation and approval. The irides- 
cent "candy-flake" colors and shock-jewel tones in vogue. The 
Teenager chooses his color: tension, decision, joyful release. The 
cult-object — the shaping-up car body — in the swirl of colored 
spray-gun mists: rose and turquoise fluorescent fogs as coat 
upon carefully-stroked, glittering coat, the car-body emerges as a 
radiant, gem-hued object of adoration. A reflected color-bath 
splashes over the absorbed faces of the watching teenagers: a 
whoop of triumph, a jungle-stomp of joy as the custom car is 

6. wonderful one (Possession. ) The Teenager takes posses- 
sion of his own completed custom or hot-rod car: the painted 
finish is caressed, the line admired (as would be the line of a girl 
friend) the chromed shift fondled, firmly grasped. (For this kalei- 
doscopic montage involving scores of custom and hot-rod cars, 
it is hoped to include the outstanding examples of customizing 
currently touring America in the Ford Custom Car Caravan, 
which could well represent the ideal Dream Cars of America's 
custom-conscious teenagers. However, for their appearance in 
KUSTOM, it will be necessary to film them in movement against 
unified black or nocturnal backgrounds — an effect that can be 
accomplished by camera or optical artifice if it proves impracti- 
cal to night-drive these valuable machines.) 

7. the fugitive (Flight and Freedom.) The Teenage hot- 
rodders "rev up" (The Syndrome of the Shift) and take off for a 
nocturnal drag race (irreal colored light-sources throughout). A 


II 3 

lone hot-rodder races down a curving mountain road (Dead 
Man's Curve). The Custom Boys, in slow motion, take com- 
mand of the controls of their Dream Cars. (This concluding se- 
quence of kustom operates exclusively in the realm of "dream 
logic": it is intended to create a Science-Fictional atmosphere.) 
The hot-rodders experience the erotic power-ecstasy of the Shift 
(the Hurst shift will be employed) to the magnified accompani- 
ment of motor and exhaust. The Custom Boys resemble Astro- 
nauts at their controls: their vari-hued craft seem to lift into 
space. (If possible, a prototype of an actual "air -car" by a noted 
West Coast designer will be utilized in this section.) The Drag- 
sters streak down the search-light stabbed runway (ideally seen 
by helicopter) as in cross-cutting the Custom Boys are liberated 
into weightlessness with their strange craft, and plunge star- 

8. shangri-la (Apotheosis.) The Dragsters streak towards an 
imposing podium (by montage inference) piled high with tower- 
ing, animated trophies of glittering gold; the Custom Boys range 
above the golden mountain high and free. A nocturnal jostling 
cheering crowd of teenagers (lit by swinging stabbing search- 
lights) swing up on their shoulders The Winner — Mr. Hot-Rod, 
his glowing triumph-filled countenance streaming sweat, his bare 
arms bearing his Golden Trophy Tower — he exults as The Con- 
queror, drinks in the adulation of the adolescent sea around him; 
he is startled by the sky-borne vroom of the upward-sweeping 
Dream Cars, his beaming face swiftly mirroring, in the moment 
of his triumph, a greater wonder, a greater goal. 


Anticipation of KKK gradually faded in the late sixties as Anger made 
statements about his new project, Lucifer Rising, which was to be his "first 
religious-film." Before the theft of his footage in 1967, Anger had faced 
two major crises while he was trying to make the film in California. His 
first "Lucifer," a five-year-old boy, killed himself trying to fly off a roof; 
his second, Bobby Beausoleil, was convicted of murder. In addition to this, 
there was the perpetual financial struggle. 

In several interviews he contrasted the project for Lucifer Rising with 
Scorpio Rising as films about the life force and the death force respectively. 
"It's about the angel-demon of light and beauty named Lucifer. And it's 
about the solar deity. The Christian ethos has turned Lucifer into Satan. 
But I show it in the gnostic and pagan sense. . . . Lucifer is the Rebel Angel 
behind what's happening in the world today. His message is that the Key 
of Joy is disobedience." Anger has also described his encounter with a 
demon, Joe, who got him to sign a contract in blood and disappeared after 
providing him with information that would help him to make the film. 


According to the early reports, Lucifer Rising was to be about the "Love 
Generation" in California, hippies, and the magical aspects of the child's 

The first sign of the rejuvenation of his film-making in the 1970s was 
his completion of Invocation of My Demon Brother, which includes ma- 
terial from the original Lucifer Rising. Then he released Puce Moment, 
synchronized to a new song, and finally he finished La Lune des Lapins, 
having re-edited the material after twenty years, added a set of songs, and 
translated the title to Rabbit's Moon. 

Invocation of My Demon Brother also marks a stylistic change and a 
refinement of Anger's Romanticism. Stylistically he shifts from the closed 
form of his earlier films to a more open form. The terms "closed" and 
"open form" denote degrees, not absolutes. The early films of Anger ob- 
serve for the most part the classical unities of time and space and tend to 
have clearly defined beginnings, middles, and ends. Allowing for its dream 
transitions, Fireworks has a simple narrative continuity. The images of 
Eaux D 'Artifice also follow a simple temporal progression and never move 
from one locale. The original version of Inauguration of the Pleasure 
Dome also has a strict temporal and spatial cohesion. The introduction of 
superimposition and above all the addition of hermetic insignia opened 
that form somewhat, but even then those foreign elements always had a 
more direct, literal relation to the central action. Even in Scorpio Rising 
the various elements of collage specifically comment upon the episodes 
Anger photographed, and they are edited to suggest the illusion of spatial 
and temporal continuity (Christ looking at the mustard torture, Puck 
cheering the racers on to death). In Invocation of My Demon Brother 
Anger still utilizes the offscreen look as a formal fixture; one can also 
distinguish an introduction and a conclusion. But nevertheless the film 
marks a radical step for him in the direction of open form, where montage 
does not depend on the illusion or the suggestion of spatial and temporal 
relationship between shots. The editing of images in Bruce Conner's Cos- 
mic Ray exemplifies an open form. We see a naked woman dancing, an 
Indian chief from a Western, an African beating a drum, the Iwo Jima flag 
raising, many shots of armies, guns firing, explosions, a Mickey Mouse 
cartoon, and an academy leader. The transition between shots follows a 
pattern of rhythm and shock. 

The intellectual coordinates involved in this change are more subtle. I 
have already referred to the Romantic tradition which informs all of An- 
ger's films and which is especially clear in Inauguration and Scorpio Rising. 
In the subsequent chapters of this book I shall explore the variations of 
the Romantic heritage in relation to the works of other major American 
film-makers. These variations are almost as complex and discontinuous as 
the Romantic movement itself in Europe and America since the beginning 
of the nineteenth century. But the term remains useful. With admirable 
condensation, Rene Wellek defined the English and German tradition of 
Romanticism as "the glorification of creative imagination, a rhetoric of 



metamorphoses and universal analogy." 16 In Invocation of My Demon 
Brother, Anger continues to glorify the creative imagination as he does in 
all of his films, but he extends the rhetoric of metamorphoses and universal 
analogy beyond the transformations of Inauguration and the dialectical 
metaphors of Scorpio Rising into a "web of correspondences, a rhetoric 
of metamorphoses in which everything reflects everything else," to quote 
Wellek again on the movement within Romanticism called Symbolism. 

In Invocation Anger combines material form the original Lucifer Ris- 
ing, a document of the Equinox of the Gods ritual he performed the night 
the film was stolen, a helicopter landing in Vietnam, footage of the Rolling 
Stones, alchemical tattoos. 

As with his other films, our description will follow the outline of his 
program note: 


Directed, Photographed, and Edited by Kenneth Anger. Filmed 
in San Francisco. Track composed by Mick Jagger on the Moog 
Synthesizer. Cast: Speed Hacker (Wand Bearer); Lenore Kandel 
and William (Deaconess and Deacon); Kenneth Anger (The Ma- 
gus); Van Leuven (Acolyte); Harvey Bialy and Timotha (Brother 
and Sister of the Rainbow); Anton Szandor La Vey (His Satanic 
Majesty); Bobby Beausoleil (Lucifer). Synopsis: Invocation of 
My Demon Brother (Arrangement in Black and Gold). The 
shadowing forth of Our Lord Lucifer, as the Powers of Dark- 
ness gather at a midnight mass. The dance of the Magus wid- 
dershins around the Swirling Spiral Force, the solar swastika, 
until the Bringer of Light — Lucifer — breaks through. "The true 
Magick of Horus requires the passionate union of opposites." — 
Aleister Crowley. 17 

Anger's subtitle of the film ("Arrangement in Black and Gold") iron- 
ically recalls the titles Whistler gave to his paintings, such as "Nocturne 
in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket," or the famous portrait of his 
mother, "Arrangement in Gray and Black." Of course, the blackness is 
also metaphorical: the spiritual matrix from which Lucifer, whose wings 
are golden in this film, emerges. 

The titles of the film are printed in golden letters over a painting of a 
black Lucifer with a Cyclopean eye and flaming stars surrounding his head. 
The first shot of the film is a parody of the painting. A white-haired man, 
whose head is flanked by stars from a flag, opens his eyes. (Again Anger 
begins a film with an image of waking.) He sees a naked torso. When he 
turns to the right, then the left, he sees two different shots of the same 
two naked boys on a sofa. Before he lifts and lowers a long transparent 
wand, we see images of an occult tattoo. 

The tattoo, like the costume in Inauguration, is central to the structure 
of Invocation. The film moves among levels of reality, suggesting that one 


image is the signature of another. It is Anger's most metaphysical film; 
here he eschews literal connections, makes the images jar against one an- 
other, and does not create a center of gravity through which the collage 
is to be interpreted, as the images of Christ could be interpreted through 
the actions of the motorcyclists in Scorpio, or as the images of Crowley 
could be interpreted through the ritual of Inauguration. Thus deprived of 
a center of gravity, every image has equal weight in the film; and more 
than ever before in an Anger film, the burden of synthesis falls upon the 

When the Wand Bearer looks up, we see the first of two shots of a 
helicopter letting out American Marines. The image is tinted red. Anger 
told Tony Rayns that he printed this image on a C roll over the entire 
film, but so faintly that it emerged to the naked eye only twice. He sug- 
gested that with infra-red glasses it might be seen throughout. 

Gradually the center of attention shifts from the Wand Bearer to a 
hashish party in which the Deacon and Deaconess are smoking with a 
friend. Suddenly, at the end of the hashish episode, as if the smoke had 
dramatically worked its power, the Magus, Anger himself in the costume 
of an Egyptian god, appears before a fountain of fire (out of Dante's In- 
ferno again, recalling the spectacular appearance of Kali in Inauguration 
of the Pleasure Dome). Then we see him rushing around a stage, waving 
a wand, pouring potions, and performing his Autumn Equinox ritual, of- 
ten in superimposition and always with an accelerated speed. The film- 
maker Ben Van Meter filmed this section for Anger the night of his rite at 
the Straight Theater. In the early stages of the ritual center of the film, 
Anger interjects shots of himself reading Crowley's novel of witchcraft, 
Moonchild, and then of arachnid — or spider-like — tattoos. 

The more we see of the ritual, the more often it is interrupted by other 
shots. There is an eye behind a fishbowl; then the first of many superim- 
positions suggestive of playing cards appears — an image is superimposed 
over itself with a reversal of top and bottom, so that the picture resembles 
the face-cards in the deck. The first of these images shows a young man, 
naked above the waist and with many moving arms like the traditional 
Kali of Indian iconography. The progress of the ritual seems to engender 
a greater degree of abstraction and anamorphosis in the film. 

During the bombardment of superimposed and abstracted images, we 
catch a first glimpse of a horned and bearded devil who at the end of the 
rite will fuse with the Magus in a rapid montage of similar body and facial 
gestures. This is his Demon Brother. Yet before this culmination of the 
ceremony, a door with a Tarot skeleton on it opens and His Satanic Maj- 
esty enters and ceremoniously places a skull on the floor. The Magus burns 
a document, then a cat. 

As the cat is burned, a shot of a group of Hell's Angels standing 
around in their leather gear fades in over the image of the flames. This 
combination of images is particularly evocative of the interpenetration of 
levels of reality mentioned earlier. The opposition of filmic textures rein- 



forces this impression as the thin, somewhat murky, superimposed images 
of the rite seem about to melt into a rich, sunlit view of the Hell's Angels 
in their black leather and silver studs. But the image is only momentary. 
The Magus becomes his Demon Brother. Then he carries a Nazi swastika 
around the stage as the film cuts to another bare-chested boy with a swas- 
tika pattern projected over him. The scene shifts again, in texture as well 
as image, to a group of ecstatic dancers in the audience of a rock festival. 
The force is precisely that of the Hell's Angels shot, of suddenly wrenching 
the film out of the realm of rite and occult signs into a more familiar realm. 
In a complementary but converse way, we simultaneously see the Hell's 
Angels and the rock festival as aspects of an occult system. 

Later, with less flourish than the entrance of the Magus, Lucifer ap- 
pears for an instant as a handsome young man in black top hat with 
golden wings. Immediately afterwards, the Deacon and Deaconess and the 
members of the jazz band begin to descend a staircase, perhaps a dozen 
figures in all. Lucifer pops up again, this time under the superimposition 
of a playing card with a top hat on it. Mick Jagger, his earthly manifes- 
tation, appears on stage at a festival. 

The film comes quickly to an end as a series of shots interrupts the 
repeated image of a bare-chested youth with a moire pattern projected 
over him. We see the Magus on the stage for the last time, then a final 
shot of Jagger performing. Finally, a tiny mummy (more in the South 
American than the Egyptian style) rushes down the empty staircase in a 
cloud of smoke with the sign "Zap You're Pregnant. That's Witchcraft." 

Shortly after Invocation of My Demon Brother was completed, I met 
Anger on a boat going from England to Holland. He had just emigrated 
from America. In our brief conversation he doubted if he would ever dis- 
tribute his films again. He was dissatisfied with the basic materials of cin- 
ema. After having made a film with vertical, rather than the traditional 
horizontal elongation in Egypt, he had destroyed it by projecting it with 
the projector turned on its side. The leaking of oil caused a fire which 
burned the film. He said he would much rather "project the images directly 
into people's heads." It is very much a part of the aspiration of Invocation 
of My Demon Brother to get beyond the limitations of cinema and directly 
into the head. In the curious message of the mummy, we have an attempt 
to do magic directly through cinema. Rayns opens his excellent study of 
Anger with a statement by Anger of his attitude toward film: 

I have always considered movies evil; the day that cinema 
was invented was a black day for mankind. Centuries before 
photography there were talismans, which actually anticipated 
photographs, since the dyes they used on the cheap vellum pro- 
duced patterns when they faded in light. A talisman was a sticky 
fly-paper trying to trap a spirit — cunningly you printed on it a 
"photograph" of the demon you wanted to capture in it. Pho- 
tography is a blatant attempt to steal the soul. The astral body 


is always just latent in a person, and certain cunning and gifted 
photographers can take an image of the astral body. The whole 
thing is having an image of someone to control them. If you're 
out of your mind with love it becomes understandable. Any 
crime is justifiable in the name of Love. In fact, it shouldn't have 
to be a "crime": Anything is justifiable in the name of Love. 

My films are primarily concerned with sexuality in people. 
My reason for filming has nothing to do with "cinema" at all; 
it's a transparent excuse for capturing people, the equivalent of 
saying "Come up and see my etchings." . . . It's wearing a little 
thin now. ... So I consider myself as working Evil in an evil 
medium. 18 

In Anger's films his image of himself, of the self, is as a Magus, never 
as a film-maker. He continues the tradition of Jean Cocteau, a film-maker 
dear to him, who in he Sang d'un Poete first made the aesthetic quest 
legitimate as a subject for cinema. Interestingly, Cocteau used film to ex- 
amine the workings of poetry, refraining from the absolute reflexivity of 
a film about cinema. Anger and other American avant-garde film-makers 
took from Cocteau both his fascination with the traditional means of art — 
poetry, music, sculpture — as opposed to cinema itself and his fusion of the 
aesthetic and the erotic quests. We have already seen how Sidney Peterson 
in both The Cage and Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur continued in that 
track. Deren too, though less directly, defined the self in terms of the fusion 
of erotic and aesthetic; and we shall shortly see the same is true of Mar- 
kopoulos, who unlike them has posited the film-maker as his central artist. 

For Anger the aesthetic endeavor is a category of magick. His image 
of the self is particularly complex because it involves as many distinctions 
as there are grades for the magician. Like Inauguration of the Pleasure 
Dome, the vision of the self in Invocation has its foundation in the Ro- 
mantic idea of the unitary man whose one character is made up of different 
individuals in opposition. But the magician of Invocation is of a higher 
order than Shiva of Inauguration, and the range of the film is both wider 
and more diffuse. The central act of the film is described in its title, but 
the cinematic context in which this manifestation occurs is a meditation 
on Anger's art and its place in the world. The first part of Lucifer Rising 
was to be called, for reasons not entirely clear to me, "The Magic House 
of Oz." The document which the Magus ritually burns is a text by Crow- 
ley, of which the first word, "oz," is all that can be seen on the screen. 
The reference must also extend to the books of L. Frank Baum, which 
Anger has said he admires. The scenes of smoking hashish and the descent 
of the staircase probably take place in "the magic house of Oz." 

Invocation of My Demon Brother is an investigation of the aesthetic 
quest through occult rhetoric. What makes this film more difficult than 
any previous Anger film is the film-maker's new use of his art as an in- 
strument of discovery. The film is about the concentration of the imagi- 



nation and indirectly about the power of art to achieve it. The montage 
compares the trance of music — the jazz band, Jagger and his audience at 
a rock festival — and the trance of drugs — smoking hashish — with posses- 
sion by war — the helicopter scenes — suicide — the Saturnian torso — and 
with sexuality — the wrestling naked boys — as the dynamics of imaginary 
initiation. The eventual glimpses of Lucifer are the first tastes of its achieve- 

By describing the cinematography of Invocation as an instrument of 
discovery one assigns to Anger the modernist principle of presenting the 
process of making as the central fact of the artifact. Watching this film, 
one feels that the film-maker did not know what the film was to be until 
it was finished. Obviously, the element of discovery exists in all film- 
making and in the making of all art. Yet there is a point for the artist 
when revelation becomes the most important aspect of his work. Anger 
reached that point with Invocation of My Demon Brother. 

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rom trance to Myth 


1947, while Kenneth Anger was editing 
Fireworks, Gregory Markopoulos began to 
shoot Psyche, the first film of his trilogy, 
Du Sang de la Volupte et de la Mort. He 
was at the time a film student at the Uni- 
versity of Southern California, and he had 
made films before. A short and rather 
charming version of Dickens's A Christmas 
Carol, which he made when he was 
twelve, was exhibited briefly in the mid- 
1960s, and an autobiographical outline 
from 1954 says, "Upon entering Wood- 
ward High School I began making some 
very bad 8mm films. . . . During my sec- 
ond semester at USC I made a short film 
in experimental form based on Hudson's 
very handsome tale, Green Mansions." 
Markopoulos's filmography nevertheless 
begins with Psyche, his first 16mm film 
and the first film he put into distribution 

A few months before he began shooting 
Psyche, he had assisted Curtis Harrington 
in making his first film, Fragment of Seek- 
ing, where a young man pursues an elusive 
blonde woman through a maze of corri- 
dors reminiscent of Maya Deren's pursuit 



of the mirror-faced figure in Meshes of the Afternoon, to discover in the 
end that she is a skeleton with a wig. In this pure example of the trance 
film, Harrington wanted to play the young man himself. He enlisted Mar- 
kopoulos to help him. Markopoulos has always scrupulously declined any 
credit for the film: "I photographed the film, exactly following his direc- 
tions. Everything was done by him: all I did was to push the camera starter. 
Curtis took all the exposures." Three years later, when Markopoulos was 
to make his own version of the psycho-dramatic trance film, Swain, he 
would enlist the aid of his friend Robert Freeman to do precisely the same 
for him. 

Psyche has no parallel among early American avant-garde films. For 
Markopoulos was at once the film-maker most attracted to narrative of 
his generation (he has adapted several literary works to film) and one of 
the most radical narrative film-makers in the world. He took such extreme 
liberties with Pierre Louys's unfinished novella, Psyche, that one would 
hardly recognize it as the source of his film. Nevertheless, he took just 
enough to give his film a cohesion and a tension that make it a continually 
fascinating work. 

In Psyche, as in his later, narrative-based films, Markopoulos dispenses 
with speech without giving up the intricacy normally found only in the 
talking film; although he absolutely relies upon visual means — his sound- 
tracks, even in the rare cases where words are involved, never explain the 
visual dimension — he does not simplify. Three interrelated characteristics 
define Markopoulos's style: color, rhythm, and atemporal construction. 
Color, rather than story, has been the emotional vehicle of his films. Al- 
though his control of rhythm and of atemporal construction gradually 
evolved from Psyche in 1947 to Gammelion in 1968, his handling of color 
was sure and consistent from the beginning. As Markopoulos made more 
films, the complexity and scope of his rhythmic invention increased. In his 
later films, his shots are either much shorter or much longer than in his 
early works; his rhythm becomes progressively more independent of the 
subject. What I have called his atemporal construction can be more amply 
described as a dialectic of time, where the shots of a film sometimes fall 
into a temporal order and sometimes cluster together in a plastic unity 
divorced from sequence and causality. As Markopoulos's art developed, 
the distinction between imagination and actuality dissolved completely and 
several "shimmering threads" of continuity began to appear simultane- 
ously, sometimes interweaving into a fine net. Nevertheless, the extent to 
which Psyche forecasts one whole line of Markopoulos's evolution, as the 
second film of his trilogy, Lysis, does another, is extraordinary. 

Psyche opens with a statue of Mercury pointing upward and toward 
a field as if beckoning the spectator into the film. A door opens on a figure 
shrouded in black, whom the film-maker has called both "a specter" and 
"the unknown" in his paraphrases of the film. There are blossoms scat- 
tered on the floor, and a hand offers flowers to the figure. This specter 
will reappear at crucial moments in the film. In a lecture delivered in Ath- 


ens in 1955, the film-maker publicly rejoiced in the ambiguities of his film: 
"A hand offers flowers. The film spectator may assume what he will. The 
shrouded figure may be Psyche." 1 

The sudden intrusion of a hand-held shot looking down at walking 
legs introduces the meeting of the male and female protagonists. They pass 
each other in the street; they then turn around and begin to talk and laugh 
familiarly. "Why should the words be supplied?" the film-maker asks. 
"The film spectator, thrust into the film by the film creator, supplies the 
thoughts and feelings which make up the dialogue." 

Markopoulos frames his shots just behind the head, or over the shoul- 
der of the listener, so that with the intercutting of faces in this unheard 
conversation, he maintains a view of both speaker and hearer and a sense 
of their relative distances from the camera. Throughout Psyche the framing 
and moving of the camera are dynamic and interesting. Markopoulos paid 
particular attention to compositions-in-depth, with details both in the fore- 
ground and background of his image. His awareness of the composition 
of the individual frame was the most acute of the avant-gardists of his 
generation, save perhaps for Broughton's in Mother's Day. Markopoulos's 
lifelong devotion to Josef von Sternberg, who taught at USC while Mar- 
kopoulos was studying there, centers perhaps upon that director's attention 
to the frame. Yet the photography of Psyche, especially in its play of depth 
and movement, seems to owe more to Welles's Citizen Kane than to any- 
thing in von Sternberg. 

Together the couple climb an outdoor staircase to a terrace from which 
he points out a house and in particular a window with its blinds half- 
closed. As she stares up at the window the wind blows her hair. In his 
lecture, Markopoulos speculates about this moment: "It is, perhaps, Eros 
being born again from the West Wind? Who knows? Let us not forget, 
though, that the West Wind is of a jealous nature." Then, just as suddenly 
as the man's legs appeared, Psyche is seen standing on a beach dressed in 
a long white gown; then, kneeling near the camera, she moulds a mound 
of sand, seaweed, and rocks, until a shadow falls across it and her. She 
looks terrified as a male hand touches and twists her hair as the wind had 
a few moments earlier in the film. Into the montage of this caressing and 
terror the film-maker weaves his first atemporal construction, mixing flash- 
backs in a stream of consciousness that suggests the whole beach episode 
was a dream, a fantasy, or perhaps an archetypal memory triggered by the 
movement of wind through her hair. 

Immediately after the shot of his hand touching her hair comes an 
image of his face, not on the beach but on the terrace before the window. 
Their exchange of looks, hers from the beach and his from the terrace, 
initiates a brief recapitulation in which two strains — one of their meeting, 
climbing the stairs, and pointing to the window, the other of Psyche's run, 
building the mound, and the sea itself — are both scrambled out of se- 
quence and intermeshed in checkerboard fashion. For a moment this ab- 
stract cascade of images halts with both figures again on the terrace. Then 


the first reappearance of the specter serves as a buffer shot in a transition 
to a new scene. 

This montage of abstraction and recapitulation is an essential of the 
Markopoulos style. In Psyche there is another, longer, such sequence at 
the end of the film. Similar constructions are crucial to the structures of 
the later films Swain, Serenity, and Twice a Man. In the films made after 
that, particularly Himself as Herself, The Illiac Passion, and Gammelion, 
temporal order becomes so ambivalent that recapitulation ceases to be 
meaningful in the world Markopoulos evokes. Yet even in the late works 
brief clusters of images are used to execute the secondary function they 
have here; making a graceful and abstract transition of scenes. 

At the end of the section just described, after the shot of the specter, 
we find ourselves in Psyche's bedroom. A slow dolly toward her sleeping 
on her couch is interrupted twice by images of the hero in a costume 
suggesting his transformation into Eros. In this dream he embraces her. 
When he caresses her black gloves, she laughs in her sleep and awakens. 

She examines a marble bust, which Markopoulos tells us is of "Psyche 
herself," touches her face, then kisses the statue. She spins around gaily, 
the twirl of her dress intercut six times with a hummingbird buzzing at a 
flower. Her happiness seems to extend through the beginning of the next 
scene in which we find her at the end of her twirl. She and the man are 
walking hand in hand through an exotic garden, smiling, and giving each 
other flowers to smell. When they come to a hilltop, she walks forward 
to the camera, while he remains behind, framed over her shoulder in the 
background. Her gaiety is gone. A shot at the level of their knees shows 
him approach her from the distance. The wind has caught her hair. When 
he touches her shoulder and gently sniffs at her hair, she turns to him in 
fear and recoils back out of his reach, falling out of frame. The music of 
the soundtrack stops. We are plunged into a blue-tinted superimposition 
of waves, seagulls, the rays of the sun, palm leaves, and two indistinct 
figures on a beach. Markopoulos described this elusive episode in his ar- 
ticle, "Psyche's Search for the Herb of Invulnerability": "The erotic night- 
mare continues. A hand is placed on Psyche's shoulder. She shudders, for 
she is in that other country and it is cold. The fingers of Eros are like frost. 
Unsuspectedly the film spectator and the silver screen, bathed in blue, be- 
come submerged with Psyche upon the borderline of her fears." 

From a pure blue the color switches to orange. It is sunset as she 
regains consciousness. As she breaks away from the man, the specter ap- 
proaches the camera and the image is flooded with an orange sunburst. 
The startling transition to blue and its resolution in orange are examples 
of the emotional use of color in this, as well as in all of Markopoulos's 
films. The orchestration of color is by no means limited to solid screen 
dominants; it operates in his choice of setting and clothing for his char- 
acters as well. For example, in the scene immediately following the ap- 
pearance of the specter, Psyche descends the steps of a church wearing 
black; she is obviously very upset. She momentarily and vainly seeks 


I2 5 

comfort and steadiness by caressing the base of a black metal lamp-post. 
She reads a letter, crumples it, and thrusts it into the camera lens. The 
sudden change of scene, the omission of what led her to the church or of 
what happened in it, and the withholding of the text of the letter, make 
this the most enigmatic and elliptical episode in the film. But the choice of 
color and the heroine's reaction to the letter provide enough information 
for us to assimilate the scene into the highly ambiguous context of the film 
as it has been evolving. 

The reader of Louys's novel will have an advantage over the untutored 
spectator of the film at this point, although that advantage might just as 
easily be called a hindrance within the logic of the film experience. In the 
novelette, Psyche asks her priest's advice about whether or not she should 
accept her lover's invitation to visit his estate. He tells her not to go, but 
she goes nonetheless. It would be futile here to embark upon a discussion 
of the relative merits of psychological clarity (the novella) and poetic am- 
biguity (the film). The essence of Markopoulos's skill as an abstract, nar- 
rative film-maker resides in his ability to present events in a richly ambig- 
uous context without sacrificing the illusion that there is a Active scheme, 
however elusive, holding them together. This discretion is the aesthetic 
justification for his cavalier treatment of literary works. 

Returning to the film itself, at the end of a transitional passage, we 
see Psyche in red in a Japanese garden, before a red bridge. She seems very 
happy. As she strikes a large gong, there is a brief montage of a path, the 
gong, an eye, an ear, and the closing of a door. A passage of darkness 
ends with a moving shot of a row of candles being snuffed out by an 
unknown hand. The camera moves in on Psyche naked on a bed. The bare 
legs of a man come forward. As they embrace we see clouds shift from 
blue, green, yellow, to red. An image of water dripping into a pool suggests 
the climax of the lovemaking. A stone shoulder and a stone foot are in- 
tercut with the final images of their embrace. A clock appears. Then the 
man, dressed in a suit, appears smoking in the Japanese garden. A dark- 
skinned woman walks through the garden, smiling at him. He smiles back 
at the woman; then he tosses his cigar into the pool (the camera set-up is 
the same as at the end of their lovemaking) and follows her. The specter 
appears again. Psyche, lonely in a white dress, presses her face to the large 
window of a hallway. At night, in the next shot, there is a man, perhaps 
the hero, sitting at supper. 

In the final montage the specter nods its head; then, in quick succes- 
sion, images appear of an old lady who glared at the couple when they 
first met, the laughing pair, their kiss at the train station, statues, Psyche 
naked in bed, the laughing pair. After a final image of the specter, the door 
closes, and the film ends. 

Markopoulos made Psyche under conditions of incredible austerity. 
He borrowed a camera, used money that was sent for his school tuition 
to buy film, and when it came to editing, he put the film together with 
Scotch tape because he had no rewinding or splicing equipment. That he 


had to shoot only izoo feet of film for a work that runs 835 feet when 
edited is another testament to his economy. 

In the years since the film was made he has offered many and even 
contradictory clues to the film's interpretation. The lecture of 1955 which 
I have quoted frequently here returns again and again to an Orphic inter- 
pretation of the film as a rite of initiation both for its heroine and for the 
film spectator. In reference to Psyche's dream he writes, "Day and Night 
no longer exist. Like Hercules, Psyche has begun her search for the herb 
of invulnerability. In order to discover this herb of invulnerability, she 
must journey to another country, she leaves behind her body, and now 
travels boldly into the unknown with the film spectator." About the meet- 
ing at the train station, he adds, "Psyche actually believes that through 
Eros she will be able to discover the herb of invulnerability." He implies 
her search was in vain. The climax of his lecture is deliberately obscure: 
"Swiftly, with the furious symbols of the stone foot, the stone shoulders, 
the film reveals the theme of Psyche and rushes like the psyche towards 
its completion. Events appear in retrospect, until once again the spectator 
realizes that he has returned to the original point of departure. " The most 
evocative, and perhaps the most helpful idea of Markopoulos's article, 
appears in the second paragraph: "Color is Eros." 2 

An earlier document from 1952 again raises both useful and baffling 
points. Like the later lecture, he couches his analysis in ambiguous phrases: 

The specter throughout is what Pierre Louys meant by "the un- 
known," perhaps it is the young film creator, who did not know 
the film's final outcome, similar to Jung writing one of his books 
and spending years deciding exactly what he said. Or it may be 
the author Louys, who never finished the book Psyche. But I 
would like to think that it is all three of the above. Fourthly, it 
is the clue to my cutting technique and film construction. 

In elaboration on the last point, Markopoulos also wrote that the veiled 
figure in Psyche functioned like a fade-out. 

Other statements in this text are more puzzling, such as one that the 
film is "a study in stream-of-consciousness narration of a Lesbian Soul, 
who in abandoning her own psyche destroys herself. " He asks us to notice 
how in the train station episode the color is drab before they kiss and with 
the meeting of their lips becomes bright. 

Markopoulos's notes equate the film Psyche with the human psyche. 
The source of Markopoulos's distinctive montage, and hence of the struc- 
ture of his films, is not a literary tradition of stream-of-consciousness writ- 
ing, but the source shared with that tradition, his study of how the mind 
thinks. The ultimate aspiration of Markopoulos's form has been the mi- 
mesis of the human mind. In different degrees and different ways this 
might be the aim of the American avant-garde film-maker in general. In 
that case the realm of Markopoulos's distinction has been the investigation 


of memory, personal and archetypal. His films lay bare a way of visionary 
thinking affirming the perpetual present tense, in which causality and lin- 
ear time are secondary discontinuous modes of experience. 

After completing Psyche, Markopoulos left Los Angeles for his home 
town, Toledo, Ohio, where he completed his trilogy. He called Lysis "a 
study in stream-of-consciousness poetry of a lost, wandering, homosexual 
soul. There is a symbolic birth in the opening scene; the wanderings; the 
reincarnations of one soul into a still greater soul, until in the final cycle 
the soul of immortality or of understanding is given to the wanderer; 
we see him going toward the far city." 3 

The film's title comes from a Platonic dialogue on the nature of friend- 
ship. Set to Honegger and Claudel's oratorio, Dance of Death, the film 
begins with a rapid succession of static images (Chinese figurines before a 
tapestry, a photograph of mother and child, a painting), which may be 
read as the thoughts of the artist as he stands by a river. After a second 
burst of mementos, in which the juxtaposition of childhood photographs 
with delicate toys and laces suggests a formative period under strong fem- 
inine influences, the rhythm of the film evens out to an almost metronomic 
pace. A series of tableaux from the body of the film: an ugly woman pops 
from one tree to another in jump-cuts; a young man lying in bed rubs his 
feet against streamers; the artist, played by the film-maker himself, wan- 
ders through a graveyard; a nude man, hanging by his wrists, is stabbed 
in the back; a black woman plays with a swan; a boy in a toga jumps, 
through stop photography, among the columns of a neo-classical building; 
another youth sleeps in a tree. At the end of this series the artist follows 
railroad tracks away from the camera. 

Markopoulos's note for Charmides includes a virtually complete syn- 
opsis of that brief film: 

A concluding cinematic statement to the film trilogy. By no 
means, though, the final statement of the film author on the ma- 
jor theme employed in the trilogy. The locale is a midwestern 
college campus. A lone youth on the campus green is scrutiniz- 
ing a tiny ceramic horse whose one leg is broken. Next a walk 
into the woods, but where? Nowhere. Two coffins, one right af- 
ter the other, appear, a superimposed cemetery, a young child 
running to her grandmother by a grave. The trilogy is at an end. 
The spectator's mind keeps probing . . . what? 4 

The title again comes from Plato. In this particular dialogue, Socrates 
inquires who is the most beautiful boy in Athens and then gives his views 
on temperance. If the toga-clad youth and the allusion to the classical myth 
of Leda and the Swan gave Lysis a tenuous connection to its Platonic 
source, the relation between Charmides and the original dialogue is even 
more ephemeral. The three parts of the trilogy Du Sang de la Volupte et 
de la Mort show a diminishing intensity. The play of nearness and depth, 


the orchestration of colors, and the complexity of montage which distin- 
guished Psyche are gone in the two subsequent films, and the formal in- 
vention of Lysis and Cbarmides was not to mature in Markopoulos's work 
until the mid-sixties. 

The film-maker edited his film in the process of shooting. The only 
splices occur at the joining of the one-hundred-foot rolls of film which fit 
into the camera he borrowed from Carter Wolff, in gratitude for which he 
dedicated the whole trilogy to him. The experimental eschewing of post- 
photography editing and the idea that a film could be shot and constructed 
at the same time show Markopoulos's commitment to cinema as an in- 
strument of discovery. 

Throughout his entire career, even when he prepared elaborate sce- 
narios, he approached his materials with an extraordinary freedom from 
preconception, so that the first complete print returned from the laboratory 
would always be a revelation to him. Furthermore, no Markopoulos film 
has ended up looking like its original outline. Even when he undertook 
the commission of recording the play of his friend George Christopoulos, 
The Death of Hemingway, he completely restructured it in the editing 
(which he tends to do sequentially, from the beginning of the film to the 
end, without revisions) by incorporating in that color film a black-and- 
white ice floe, which happened to be left over at the editing table from 
Adolfas Mekas's Hallelujah the Hills. 

It was in 1950, again in Toledo, that he made his version of the trance 
film, Swain. His collaborator Robert C. Freeman, Jr., chose the locations 
and mechanically operated the camera, as Markopoulos himself had once 
done for Curtis Harrington. 

Swain is a film in three parts or movements with an elusive frame. It 
is part of what was to have been a much longer film called either Rain 
Black, My Love, or Poeme Onerique, and it is a remarkably oblique dis- 
tillation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's first novel, Fanshawe. The transfor- 
mation is so drastic that no one could guess the source. In the first part 
of the film, the protagonist, played by the film-maker, rushes through the 
woods, climbs an embankment, discovers and then enters a mysterious 
house. In the middle section, a woman appears. Following the path of the 
hero, she pursues him through the house and subsequently disturbs his 
reverie in a greenhouse. As before, he flees from her. In the final part of 
the film, they meet briefly and awkwardly before a climactic recapitulation 
of images. The frame of the film appears piece-meal, first in the opening 
shots of the hero studying himself in a mirror. It is forecasted, though we 
cannot realize it at the time, in a series of architectural shots in the middle 
of the film, and again in a brief cut very late in the work, from the hero 
discovering a woman's stocking to a different view of him, dressed in pa- 
jamas, ripping up decorations or flowers. At the end of the film these 
elements are resolved: the hero in his pajamas opens his curtains, which 
disguise a windowless brick wall; the architectural details were those of 
an insane asylum, and we see his pursuer leaving it after paying him a 


visit. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the whole of Swain is framed 
within the mind of the inmate of an institution, but unlike Weine's film, 
there is no great overhanging question. We can infer that the patient is 
institutionalized only because of his refusal to accept a sexuality he finds 
foreign and gross and which society insists upon as the norm. 

In an essay which Markopoulos has called "perhaps the only percep- 
tive article concerning my work," Donald Weinstein says, "Swain is an 
evocation in gentle images and visual symbols of a subconscious rejection 
of the stereotyped masculine role that society and women insist upon. This 
rejection takes the form of escape: flight in fantasy from what is visually 
conceived as crude, repelling sexuality into the purity of creative activity, 
of nature, and of individual personality left inviolate." 5 

Swain is rich in metaphors. In the run of the hero through the woods 
and up a hill, quick interjections, first of a worm crawling on the wing of 
a dead bird, then of an alligator trying to mount another in a mud wallow, 
provide the first suggestion that his running might be a flight. The precise 
nature of that flight is further hinted at by his encounter with the marble 
head of a satyr on the road to the house. Inside the house, the woman 
finds the hero sleeping on a bed. As she leans over to kiss him, the montage 
shows a black bug crawling within an exquisite white flower, a metaphor 
which also forecasts the scene in the greenhouse. Later the image is re- 
versed: the bug crawls back out of the center of the flower when the her- 

Gregory J. Markopoulos in his film Swain. Copyright estate of G. J. Markopou- 
los, courtesy Temenos Archive. 



oine continues her pursuit into his floral sanctuary. The last in this series 
of animal and statuary metaphors is the image of a ram gargoyle intercut 
repeatedly with the heroine during her meeting with the hero in the last 
part of the film. 

As in Psyche, costume has an important function in Swain. The hero's 
elegant robe in the opening shots at the mirror and his pajamas at the end 
are the uniforms of his narcissistic imprisonment. The woman first appears 
in a white wedding dress, following the trail of the hero. When she en- 
counters him in the house, he is asleep in a military uniform. At their final 
encounter, both are dressed in suits, suggestive in this context of the for- 
mality and the strain of their meeting. 

At the end of the film, while the heroine and hero are talking before 
a small colonnade, a rapid recapitulation moves the film to its conclusion. 
Forty very quick shots, ranging from three to eight frames long and each, 
on the average, on the screen for a quarter of a second, recapitulate the 
whole film, mixing shots of the hero from various points in the film with 
buildings, statues, and the gargoyle. This spectacular summary of the film 
changes to images of the hero confined and of the heroine walking away 
from the institution. 

In terms of its speed and scope of images, the clustered recapitulation 
of Swain is a great advance over that of Psyche, where the shots were for 
the most part a second and a half in length (the shortest being twenty- 
seven frames, or just over a second). The image cluster does not figure in 
the construction of the two short films Markopoulos completed in the 
early 1950s, Flowers of Asphalt (1951) and Eldora (1952). Between 1954 
and 1961, he worked in Greece, Italy, and America on Serenity. The film 
had only a half-dozen screenings before it was stolen by its producer and 
disappeared. I did not see it and do not know the pace or form of the final 
montage, where the film is said to end "with a clip from every scene in 
the picture following each other in lightning sequence." 6 Thus the tech- 
nique of Swain extends through Serenity to Twice a Man. 

Swain, with the title Rain Black, My Love, ran for about an hour 
when Markopoulos left in 1950 for his first trip to Europe. When he 
returned, Brandon Films offered to distribute it if he would cut out half 
an hour. Markopoulos removed a long section in which the hero wandered 
within the house, which Amos Vogel of Cinema 16 once considered the 
most exciting scene in the film. Unfortunately, he destroyed what he re- 

Swain was not so much based on Hawthorne's Fanshawe as a project 
that originally began as an adaptation of Fanshawe. Hawthorne's novel 
describes the adventures of three college students — two men, Walcott and 
Fanshawe, and a woman, Ellen Langton. The first radical alteration of 
Hawthorne came when Markopoulos decided to combine the two males. 
In an interesting article on the film, "From Fanshawe to Swain," he admits 
it was the early description of Fanshawe that inspired him, not the plot: 


"a ruler in a world of his own and independent of the beings that sur- 
rounded him." 7 

The complexity of Psyche derives, in part at least, from the artist's 
desire to condense the events of a novella into a short cinematic form and 
create a network of associations in portraying the affair of two active 
participants. Swain, on the other hand, is a trance film. Its hero is passive; 
its development is linear, with elaboration by metaphor rather than by the 
interaction of events. The trance film is by nature an erotic quest, and its 
quest figure is either a dreamer or in a mad or visionary state. In Swain 
the search through the imagination for a sexual identity takes a negative 
form; flight replaces quest, and the film resolves itself in narcissism and in 
a portrait of society's imprisonment of the self. 

Twice a Man loosely follows the myth of Hippolytus. In Euripides' 
play, his stepmother, Phaedra, tries to seduce him. When he spurns her, 
she falsely accuses him to his father, by whose curse he is driven into the 
sea and drowned. In the opening of Frazer's monumental study, The 
Golden Bough, we find the subsequent legend that through the aid of the 
goddess Artemis and the physician Asclepius, he was resurrected and lived 
immortally in the sacred grove of Nemi. Frazer says he was called "Twice 
Born" there, and it is from this legend that Markopoulos adapts his title. 

In the film, Paul, a contemporary Hippolytus, makes a visit to his 
mother's house after crossing New York Harbor to Staten Island. As he 
wanders through the house, mixing memory with prophecy, he envisions 
scenes of his life with his mother and with a male lover, whom the film- 
maker calls the Artist-Physician, a representation of the creative self. 

The montage of the film interweaves the thoughts and memories of 
four people — Paul, his lover, and two versions of his mother, one as a 
young woman, the other very old. The point of reference shifts from one 
persona to another in an interlocking set of framing structures. The spec- 
ificity of the reference point looms at one time and fades away at others. 
Paul exists both before and after his death; once, when entering the house, 
he sees glimpses of the young men come to mourn his death. 

The film opens with an imageless screen. For a long time, it is totally 
black and only the sound of rain is heard. The first shot we see is of the 
Artist-Physician sitting sadly on the deck of the slowly moving ferry. One 
could view the film as if it had evolved entirely through his mind. The 
opening shot is interrupted six times by split-second flashes of the New 
York skyline. The interruptions grow longer and more frequent until the 
skyline is the dominant shot, and a single very short echo of the first shot 
punctuates it. This form of cinematic enjambment distinguishes the change 
of shots throughout most of Twice a Man. It offers the film-maker nearly 
infinite variations for telegraphing his next image and for sustaining the 
overtones of the previous one. To the eye quickly trained by a few minutes 
of watching Twice a Man, a direct cut, without forecast or recall, is a 
visual shock. 



A second shot of the Artist-Physician on the ferry prepares us, 
through its interruptions, for the introduction of the hero, Paul. In the 
first elaborated sequence of the film, Paul seems to contemplate suicide. 
He stands at the very edge of a roof looking down. His isolation is em- 
phasized by a rhythmic intercutting of his ascent to the roof by climbing 
a ladder, as seen through a slowly following zoom lens mixed with shots 
of the movements of dancers at the party he has just left, shot from 
above. The Artist-Physician, his lover, appears on the roof, framed in the 
distance behind Paul. He places his hand on Paul's shoulder in a shim- 
mering montage of intercut close-ups of hand, shoulder, and lips. In his 
article on the production and the structure of the film, "The Driving 
Rhythm," Markopoulos refers to this episode as the earliest meeting of 
Paul and his lover. 

Paul, too, leaves Manhattan and embarks on the ferry. His trip moves 
through day and night simultaneously, combining sunset, moonlight, and 
dawn, and includes such shadowy images of other passengers that it dis- 
tinctly suggests Hades and the crossing of the Styx. Within the course of 
the crossing several brief episodes occur, for the reference has shifted now 
from the mind of the lover to that of Paul. 

After the ferry lands, Markopoulos gives us another scene of rhythmic 
and intellectual counterpoint before Paul goes to his mother's house. In 
the episode in question, he cuts between Paul sitting among giant marble 
slabs of a public monument and his lover pacing on the marble terrace of 
a museum as the sun fades and shines again in synchronization with his 
movements. The montage contrasts the calm waiting of one and the anx- 
iety of the other, but still more interesting is the atemporal juxtaposition 
of the two scenes. 

The house of Paul's mother is the climax in a line of mysterious or 
enchanted houses in Markopoulos's work — the house which the couple in 
Psyche point at and observe, the house in Swain, whose exploration the 
film-maker unfortunately removed — and in other early American avant- 
garde films. The ultimate source and most fabulous example of this motif 
was the Hotel des Folies-Dramatiques in Jean Cocteau's he Sang d'un 
Poete. As Paul wanders through the rooms, scenes with his mother as a 
young woman inside the house and scenes with his lover outside take 
shape. The mother as an aged woman remains throughout Twice a Man 
an indistinct figure. She incarnates the spirit of memory and of loss which 
pervades the film. 

Alternately, the house is empty and inhabited. As Paul first enters he 
sees, almost as if they were mirages, two young men crying. They are his 
mourners. He calls out, and we see quick flashes of the young and the old 
mother and hear a human voice for the first time in the film. Although we 
might expect to hear the hero at this point, each time we hear a woman's 
voice calling his name. 

In the early digressions from the action in the house, Markopoulos 
gives us three scenes of the Frazerian Hippolytus in inverted order. In one 


I 33 

we see him ritually cut a lock of his hair while kneeling on a city street 
and "offer" it in a mailbox. The second, through a breathtaking cut from 
the purple and rose interior of the living room to the yellows and oranges 
of a forest in autumn, shows us Paul caressing the trunk of a tree, presum- 
ably in his sacred grove. 

The last of the three, which by chronology would be the first, shows 
his rebirth in the heavens. This episode is fused with the interior action, 
while the other two had been sudden ruptures. The reincarnation comes 
at the climax of a scene in the kitchen where the young mother seems 
entranced. She speaks through billows of smoke. The words that she 
speaks on the soundtrack are physically fragmented by the film-maker's 
cutting into the sound tape and deleting parts of the utterance: "Our air/ 
sent thro . . . sun's golden/ por . . . and descended/ invi . . . move . . . 
lea. . . ." The words "through," "pores," "invisible," "movement," and 
"leaves" have been fragmented. First we see brief flashes of his navel (two 
frames) and of the Milky Way (two frames). Very gradually the length of 
these shots increases, and they vary so that in superimposition Paul un- 
ravels from a fetal position in the Milky Way and in Saturn. His chest and 
back appear in the disk of the sun, then his head. The images of astro- 
nomical rebirth are scattered through the scenes of the mother in smoke, 
so that they appear as illustrations of her prophecy. 

Before the scene of the hero's heavenly regeneration, the voice of the 
mother had asked him why he kept seeing the Physician. The remaining 
digressions, or framed episodes as he wanders through the house, are, as 
if in response to the question, a review of the encounters of the two men 
meeting in the rain, walking together, and visiting the classical sculpture 
gallery of a museum. 

Within the house the numerous murals, richly painted walls, velvet 
and elegant wooden and straw furniture, golden cupids in relief, and other 
decorations of a visually lush nature form the background for the hero's 
wanderings. The transitions to bright exterior scenes or to subdued inte- 
riors, such as his lover's blue apartment, create a dynamic visual counter- 

At one point we see Paul asleep in a chair. A book, Prince of Darkness, 
lies in his hand. What follows may be his dream: his young mother in a 
white wedding dress hovers over his dead body, which is stretched out on 
a rock beside the sea. Part of her dress covers his naked loins. At the point 
when her lips touch his face in a kiss, the film-maker cuts to an extreme 
close-up of a white cat licking his chops. The death by sea is one specific 
reference to the imagery of Euripides. On the other hand, the presence of 
his mother in her wedding dress recalls the pursuer of Swain. In the next 
scene, we find Paul stretched out on a bed, stroking the cat; a further 
indication that the previous image was his dream. Yet in Twice a Man, 
past, present, and future, dream and waking, are so fused that they dissolve 
as distinct categories of experience or thought; they exist within the per- 
spectives of the film as flavors of experience. 



From the scene in the bedroom to the end of the film, the center of 
reference oscillates between the Artist-Physician and the two mothers. The 
old one appears more frequently now. At one point both mothers even 
appear on the bed with Paul. 

That shot is interrupted by a spectacular recapitulation of seventy- 
seven shots, each only two frames long, of clips from the beginning of the 
film up to that point, more or less in the order they had first appeared. 
The entire passage blazes by in less than seven seconds. This sudden ex- 
plosion of images initiates the drive toward the climax of the film. At the 
end of it, the montage slows down for a moment, briefly reorienting itself 
in the house as Paul comes out of a bath, but within a few seconds the 
scene shifts again to the corridor of an opera house or theater, where Paul 
sits at the top of a staircase, his lover beside him. As the lover's finger 
traces the line of the hero's profile, from his forehead past his nose, a 
second recapitulation occurs, this time of thirty two-frame elements in a 
somewhat more scrambled order. His lover takes his hand. While a new 
sequence from the mother's house begins to assert itself, we see Paul si- 
multaneously standing up and collapsing to the ground, as bits of each 
movement are intercut. 

Back in the house, the bathroom episode is intercut with a complex 
scene of the two mothers, seen individually, and reflected through a mirror, 
reaching out to touch the hero's cheek as he shaves. The scene gradually 
shifts from the mirror to a final location, an empty ballroom. Here we see 
Paul dancing by himself, with a superimposition of shimmering crystals as 
if from a chandelier above his head. His lover is reflected in the glass of a 
mirror column. He dances until he collapses. His lover comes to kiss him, 
as his mother had done. As he lowers his head toward the protagonist, 
whom we assume to be dead now, his face completely intermeshes with 
his in superimposition, so that we see two people but one face. He kisses 
him. When the Artist-Physician lifts his head away, the image of the hero's 
face cracks, like broken glass, and the pieces fall away leaving a white 
screen, where at first there had been only black. 

Markopoulos conceived Twice a Man as a film with synchronous di- 
alogue. Throughout the film we see people talking, but cannot hear them. 
In Film Culture 29 he wrote up some of his notes from the shooting in 
the form of a tentative script. Here is part of the scene of the two mothers 
by the mirror: 

Cut to the young Olympia and her son seen through a magnifi- 
cent mirror. We see the son's face and Olympia is a hazy image 
in the background. We hear her ask: 
Why do you keep seeing the physician? 
The son, Paul, in the same composition, turns and looks to- 
wards the sun's rays — a long ray glistens to one edge of the film 
frame, and we hear him say: 
When you get to like a man's face, 


There's nothing you can do about it. 

The scene changes to the aged mother before the mirror. Now 
she is seen through her mirror. Slowly, exquisitely, in profile she 
raises her hand as if to touch Paul — he falls into frame. In the 
mirrored shot we see his face covered with shaving cream. The 
aged mother's hand touches his face, and draws away. Cut to 
the young Olympia. There is cream on her fingertips. Paul is by 
her side. Slowly she goes to touch his lips. As she turns her 
hand away towards the rays of the sun, Paul grabs it, and as if 
in a dream, tilts it toward the camera lens. He holds her out- 
stretched hand, saying: 

Cut to Olympia, the younger. She raises her hand. Cut to the 
aged Olympia. She is alone before the mirror, her hand held 
high in the air. There is no one there. 8 

He edited the film sequentially from beginning to end without revision. 
Markopoulos had the cosmic rebirth scene printed first "to see if it would 
work." Then he ordered the whole silent print. By this time, he had de- 
cided to discard synchronous sound and use the voices of Paul, his young 
mother, and perhaps his lover. When his protagonist failed to show up 
for a recording session, he decided to use only the single woman's voice. 
Finally he hit upon the idea of fragmenting her words. In "The Driving 
Rhythm" he describes this process more dramatically: "Originally dialogue 
was to be utilized, until I decided in favor of the more powerful motif of 
thunder." 9 

He does use several claps of thunder in the film, as well as bursts of 
rain, and the sound of shattering, cracking ice in the final image. He also 
placed snatches from the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Manfred at 
several points in the film. Earlier in Psyche, he balanced silence and sound 
by stopping the music for the blue reverie; in Swain he keeps the film silent 
until the hero approaches the house, and then the music begins. 

The words of Twice a Man begin as Paul enters his mother's house. 
They continue through the various scenes in the house as if it were haunted 
by fragmentary echoes. Rather than making the words meaningless, the 
fragmentation creates new ambiguities and an aural tension. The ear rap- 
idly reconstructs the broken words. 

Markopoulos completed Twice a Man in 1963, just in time to enter 
the third Experimental Film Competition at Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium, 
where he won a $2000 prize. The film came at the high point of the 
mythopoeic development within the American avant-garde. Brakhage had 
finished and was exhibiting the first two sections of Dog Star Man by then; 
Jack Smith was still exhibiting the year-old Flaming Creatures; Scorpio 
Rising appeared almost simultaneously with Twice a Man. The shift from 
an interest in dreams and the erotic quest for the self to mythopoeia, and 
a wider interest in the collective unconscious occurred in the films of a 


Gregory Markopoulos: Twice a Man. Paul and his mother in a fusion of mar- 
riage and mourning. Copyright estate of G. J. Markopoulos, courtesy Temenos 

number of major and independent artists. The mythopoeic film need not 
evoke a classical myth or compare different myths, although it may do 
either or both. Mythopoeia is the making of a new myth or the reinter- 
pretation of an old one. In the world of myth, which all these films share, 
imagination triumphs over actuality, and this imagination is unqualified 
by the perimeters of dream or delusion, as it is qualified in the trance film. 

So strong was the impulse to create a mythic cinema that all the artists 
I have just mentioned immediately plunged into new myth films after com- 
pleting the films named. Brakhage continued to work on the three re- 
maining sections of Dog Star Man until 1966; Jack Smith shot Normal 
Love; Anger sought to repeat Scorpio Rising's form in Kustom Kar 
Kommandos. Finally Markopoulos, now confident in the maturity of his 
form, began the Prometheus project, which he had wanted to make since 
his USC days. 

During the making of Twice a Man, Markopoulos began publishing 
his most important theoretical articles. He had written and published on 
film throughout his career, but the articles since the early 1960s embody 
his mature vision of cinema; he tacitly recognized this himself by including 
nothing written before 1962 in his collected articles, Chaos Pbaos (Te- 
menos, Florence, 1971). 



In "Towards a New Narrative Film Form," he discusses the montage 
system of Twice a Man. After criticizing the conventional sound cinema 
for its neglect of the "film frame" and for its failure to achieve a "poetic 
unity" of word and picture, he speaks of his newly created editing style: 

I propose a new narrative form through the fusion of the classic 
montage technique with a more abstract system. This system in- 
volves the use of short film phrases which evoke thought-images. 
Each film phrase is composed of certain select frames that are 
similar to the harmonic units found in musical composition. The 
film phrases establish ulterior relationships among themselves; in 
classic montage technique there is a constant reference to the 
continuing shot; in my abstract system there is a complex of dif- 
ferent frames being repeated. 10 

Earlier in the article he had rejected the use of filters, anamorphic 
lenses, laboratory effects, and even costumes as significant elements in the 
formal organization of films. Thus he grounds his polemic in the central 
theoretical dialectic of the American avant-garde film. Deren, as we have 
shown in the second chapter, sought the essence of cinema in the very 
mechanics of the filmic materials and equipment. She defined the art of 
cinema as the manipulation of space and time as it was recorded by the 
camera. For her, fast and slow motion and the use of negative were legit- 
imate tactics, while graphic imagery and anamorphosis were not, because 
the former were tied directly to the conventions of the camera and the 
latter were expressionistic or surrealistic distortions of its function. 

Although he did not elaborate his opposition to this position in the- 
oretical articles, Sidney Peterson in practice made a cinema in which the 
representation of space was purely a function of the will and the imagi- 
nation of the film-maker rather than a given of the lens. Polemically, Stan 
Brakhage became the theoretical expositor of this position, as we shall see 
in the next two chapters. For Brakhage, indeed, one primary responsibility 
of the film-maker as an artist is to overcome imaginatively the built-in 
predispositions of the equipment as it is standardized and manufactured. 

The argument about the ontological status of the spatial image in cin- 
ema has animated most of the theory of the American avant-garde. For 
instance, when James Broughton wrote, in his note to Mother's Day, that 
"from the beginning I accepted the camera's sharply accurate eye as a value 
rather than a limitation ... I decided to make things happen head on, 
happen within the frame, without vagueness, without camera trickery" he 
aligned himself with Deren's position and implicitly distinguished himself 
from his former collaborator, Peterson. Anger never took a public stance 
on this issue, but his films, through Scorpio Rising, depend upon a spati- 
ality that originates with Deren. In fact his most Deren-like construction, 
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, marks a turning point in his practice. 
In the original version from 1954, montage and the correlation of offscreen 

i 3 8 


vectors perform the whole work of synthesis; but when he re-edited it in 
1966, the elaborate use of superimposition introduced a new type of syn- 
thesis, within the spatial dimension, which he continued to explore in his 
later film, Invocation of My Demon Brother. 

Markopoulos has always focused his energies on the reconstruction of 
time in his films and has tended to accept the givenness of cinematic space 
even when his work on single-frame montage within the camera led him 
to superimposition. His theoretical exploration of the operation of the 
single frame begins with the investigation of its representation of psycho- 
logical complexities and subtleties, but it quickly moves beyond that. In 
the later essays he assigns it an hieroglyphic significance which puts into 
question the authority of cinema's representation of movement itself. 

The evolution of his thought on the function of the single frame cor- 
responds to a change of its function within his work. In Twice a Man the 
single-frame montage grows out of the recapitulatory passages in Psyche, 
Swain, and Serenity. Since the whole film is inscribed within the memory 
of the Artist-Physician, the single-frame clusters tend to represent com- 
plexes of his remembered past, while the variations which mark the tran- 
sitions between shots can be interpreted as proleptic movements in the 
mind's narration to itself of its own history. In the later films this psycho- 
logical representationalism disappears. In Himself as Herself and The Illiac 
Passion this method of montage will undercut the illusion of the temporal 
autonomy of a scene or the narrative autonomy of a single mythological 
episode. In Gammelion, Markopoulos abolishes the "continuing shot" as 
a matrix for the single-frame cluster and invests totally in the "hiero- 
glyphic" power of the static frames. In these later works the film-maker 
continues to see cinematic structures as a model for the human mind but 
he no longer accords a privileged place to the category of memory within 
that model. 

Markopoulos continues his essay with a discussion of the visibility of 
the single frame. Then he enumerates its advantages: 

Limitless change in rhythm, or the sudden interjection of alliter- 
ation, metaphor, symbol, or any discontinuity introduced into 
the structure of the motion picture, makes possible the arrest of 
the film spectator's attention, as the film-maker gradually con- 
vinces the spectator not only to see and to hear, but to partici- 
pate in what is being created on the screen on both the narrative 
and introspective levels. 11 

In "The Filmmaker as the Physician of the Future," he suggests a 
spiritual force within the avant-garde film movement tantamount to its 
having curative effects: "the New American Cinema Film-maker is a phy- 
sician of images, the first of his kind." The characterization of the lover 
in Twice a Man as the Artist-Physician comes to mean more in this context 
than the fusion of the idea of the film-maker with the myth of Asclepius. 


"From film to film," Markopoulos writes, emphasizing the continuous 
process of the artist's work, "the creative film-maker as opposed to the 
commercial film-maker, offers to the creative film spectator (a recently 
realized species) with each film conception that murmuring vibration 
which after a time, from film work to film work (I think of Brakhage, of 
Harrington, of Stroheim, of [Jack] Smith) becomes the congeries which 
reveal this self-same film spectator's Being." 12 He offers two instructions 
for the audience in viewing his films (this essay was read as a lecture before 
a screening of Through a Lens Brightly: Mark Turbyfill and Himself as 

A — Do not attempt to single out any one film frame or se- 
ries of film frames passing across the screen, and thus neglect 
others. Such abstraction would lead to a total misunderstanding 
of either film. 

B — To view the film as image composed to image, regardless 
if it is only a single frame. It is the Invisible that the film specta- 
tor must seek. This Invisible will lead him forwards and back- 
wards and ultimately towards the Future: the future in this case 
is the understanding of the films. 13 

The application of his confidence in the montage of Twice a Man came 
with the making of The Illiac Passion and Himself as Herself. Although 
the latter film was made and edited after the former, it was printed and 
released first. Before either film was released, the film-maker finished and 
showed Galaxie, a collection of thirty portraits, and Ming Green, a study 
of his apartment. 

In Himself as Herself Markopoulos offers a tour-de-force concentra- 
tion for one hour of film on a single character, who manifests alternately 
a male and a female persona. Perhaps the limitation to a single figure was 
a reaction to the handling of almost thirty characters in The Illiac Passion. 

Himself as Herself takes Balzac's Seraphita as its source, reducing the 
five characters to one and transferring the action from the Norwegian 
coast to an elegant quarter of Boston. Balzac's novel, his most occult work, 
describes the union of Seraphita and Seraphitus in a single body, feminine 
and masculine, and his eventual ascension into a Swedenborgian heaven. 

The film proceeds statically with some thirteen major scenes, or lo- 
cations, edited in the same way as Twice a Man, but without any recapit- 
ulation or framing devices. It opens with the protagonist dressed in a tux- 
edo, as he is through most of the film, and operating an electron 
microscope. The repeated and puzzling alternation of a beautiful fan and 
a gilded human foot punctuates the scene. The interior scenes of Himself 
as Herself are as elegant as those of Twice a Man, but they suggest much 
greater wealth. We first see the hero inside, beside a fireplace, where he 
finds a ring and reaches out as if to embrace someone who isn't there. Our 
first view of his female manifestation occurs next when his intercut ascent 



and descent in a hand-operated elevator shows him alternately in his tux- 
edo and in a woman's sari. He lightly touches stuffed birds and cowers in 
fear as a live parrot looks on. Then, in a central and revealing scene, the 
protagonist crawls undressed under a fur piece to sleep. A mysterious hand 
strokes his hair; unidentified lips kiss him. 

The transition from one episode to another is gradual. The use of 
single frames prolongs the change of scene which by contrast had been 
relatively rapid in Twice a Man. The occasional choice of close-ups, such 
as the foot and the fan near the beginning, as the central shots of a scene, 
further separates the significant actions of the protagonist and gives the 
film a static quality despite the flickering of its montage. A fine glass is 
broken on the rug, and a bobby pin appears in one such scene of close- 
ups. Furthermore, the sensual attention to objects by both the camera and 
the protagonist reinforces the stasis. He sits next to a glass cabinet in which 
a wedding dress (again!) is displayed. He is handling a woman's white 

Markopoulos makes more use of the offscreen look and gesture as a 
force unifying the different locations in this film than in any other. The 
protagonist finishes writing a letter, signs it with the pressing of a flower 
on the page, and reaches out offscreen, as if to the single-frame echoes of 
his female self in the previous scene in the garden. In the climax of the 
film, both male and female personae seem to come together and embrace 
on a staircase. Markopoulos achieves this while maintaining a sense of 
their individuality by very rapidly intercutting from the masculine to the 
feminine as they move toward the same point on the staircase. A final 
scene brings the hero to a religious ecstasy as he falls to his knees, beating 
his heart and apparently crying, in Boston's Trinity Church. The Gloria of 
Poulenc, heard before and during the titles, accompanies this scene. 

Robert Lamberton has found sources for the images of Himself as 
Herself in Balzac's novel, from which he offered the following excerpts: 

It always hurts me to see you use the monstrous wisdom 
[science] with which you strip all human things of the properties 
conferred on them by time, space and form, to consider them 
mathematically under I don't know what pure expression, just 
as geometry acts upon bodies whose solidity it abstracts from 

Seraphitus undid his sable-lined cloak, rolled himself in it, 
and slept. ... To see him thus, wrapped in his usual garment, 
which bore as much resemblance to a woman's peignoir as to a 
man's coat, it was impossible not to see the delicate feet which 
hung below as those of a girl . . . but the profile of his head 
must have seemed the expression of human force brought to its 
highest degree. 14 


In a note for the Film-Makers' Cooperative catalogue, the film-maker 
refers to the theme of the film: 

The film's point of departure and inspiration is from de 
Balzac's famous novel Serapbita. While de Balzac's novel depicts 
with grave Swedenborgian overtones the ecstasies of a hermaph- 
rodite, Markopoulos's own Himself as Herself depicts the tragic 
situation, typical to the day, and one might say especially of the 
American scene of that black-tie Athenianism that is prevalent 
on the Eastern Seaboard. Indeed, a denial of one's self. Himself 
as Herself begins in the laboratory which contains an electronic 
microscope at Boston University and ends at Trinity Church. 15 

And in an interview with Jonas Mekas he says, "The clue to the whole 
film is the tuxedo that the protagonist wears. You see, it's a certain strata 
of society. That's my first social comment. " Himself as Herself is Mar- 
kopoulos's most mysterious film. These clues hardly clarify the mystery. 
They refer, I believe, to a level of the film which can be paraphrased as 
the spiritual crisis and revelation of a man who at the beginning lived and 
thought superficially. The film moves from science (the electron micro- 
scope) to religion (the church), and its turning point is a scene of ambig- 
uous love-making (the fur piece). Markopoulos once contrasted the reve- 
lations of American avant-garde films with those of science, saying that 
the viewing of certain films "becomes an inevitable religious act: contain- 
ing all that the Sciences, various as they are, very often do not contain, 
and often as not do not communicate to the average spectator." 

The "clue" to Himself as Herself, despite what its maker has said, is 
not the tuxedo or the social status of its hero. Its mystery is more funda- 
mental than that and rests in the end upon Markopoulos's unique concep- 
tion of the relation of cinema to literature. When asked, for what must 
have been the thousandth time, about the relation of his films to the French 
nouveau roman by the Voice of America, he answered: 

I don't think it's the film-makers that are being inspired by 
the latest gimmickry of the French novel, such as Robbe-Grillet 
and company. I think what is happening is the image which, 
you know, for thousands of years was trying to replace the use 
of the word has done that, and the novelist just have no way 
out. They have to imitate film. . . . You have to go all the way 
back, you know, to hieroglyphics. We're back at that interesting 
stage, and I think that's where vital communication can come 
into effect. ... A film is made up of a series of frames. These 
frames can be used to a psychological purpose. I mean, literally, 
the single frame — and they do not become subliminal. You can 
actually see a single frame on the screen. It's just a matter of, 

I 4 2 


you know, even the theatre-going film spectator becoming accus- 
tomed to this sort of thing. But, you see, in my kind of work, in 
about . . . two seconds, I can release how many frames and re- 
veal an emotion, an idea, or anything you can think of. 16 

In his references to hieroglyphics, Markopoulos is suggesting that pic- 
ture narrative ontologically and historically precedes verbal narrative and 
that the invention of the motion picture camera made possible a revival 
of this ancient and fundamental form of expression. The novel, then, 
would be a secondary attempt to translate cinema, even before its me- 
chanical invention, into words. 

In Himself as Herself Markopoulos has relied more than in any other 
film on the "hieroglyphics" of cinematic imagery to assume the burden of 
narrative. Its companion piece, Eros, O Basileus (Eros, The King), was 
made shortly after Himself as Herself and released at the same time. Al- 
though the film-maker has never formally coupled the two films, they com- 
plement one another. Eros, O Basileus, too, has only one character, who 
appears naked in most of the film's nine tableaux. His sexual presence and 
confidence on the screen are very much the opposite of the introspective 
androgyne of the other film. The objects he touches — books and paint- 
ings — are the icons of the creative spirit; there is also a camera and re- 
winding equipment in the film. When the protagonist slowly strikes the 
pose of Eros and shoots imaginary arrows from an invisible bow, one feels 
not so much the presence of the god as a mannerist tension between the 
naked youth and his role, a tension reminiscent of the grinning nude San 
Giovanni Battista of Caravaggio. 

Before he shot Himself as Herself Markopoulos said it would be edited 
in the camera. Later he changed his mind. Eros, O Basileus was con- 
structed while shooting with a limited amount of editing afterwards. The 
formal innovation of that film for Markopoulos is its punctuation by fade- 
outs made in the camera, not as terminal points, but as phrase-markers 
within a single camera set-up or shot. Markopoulos worked from August 
to October 1966 on these fades. 

The film-maker resurrected the discipline of making films without 
post-editing in 1966 when he shot his collection of portraits, Galaxie. The 
previous year Stan Brakhage had completed and screened a series of por- 
traits of his family, other artists, poets, and ending with a portrait of the 
film-maker Jonas Mekas — all in 8mm. That collection of portraits, called 
15 Song Traits, was incorporated within his serial film, Songs. Somewhat 
earlier Andy Warhol had put together two sets of short facial portraits — 
one take to a person — called 13 Most Beautiful Boys and 13 Most Beau- 
tiful Girls; he had also done a feature-length, full-figure portrait of Henry 
Geldzahler, the art critic and curator, smoking a cigar. Of the forty por- 
traits Markopoulos shot, thirty were incorporated into his finished film. A 
year later he did a single portrait, about twice as long as the others, called 
Through a Lens Brightly: Mark Turhyfill (1967). 


In making the portraits his method had been to select an object or an 
activity with personal significance to the subject. Carefully watching the 
frame-counter on his camera, he would expose a number of takes of one 
image interspersed with blackness, achieved by covering the lens with his 
hands or the lens cap for as long as he wanted, or by using the automatic 
fading mechanism of his Bolex camera, all with different nuances. He 
would then rewind the film and expose the units of the next view, detail, 
or object. In the finished portraits, each of which lasts for three and a half 
minutes, or the time of projecting 100 feet of film, each image has its own 
metrical pace, which alternates with or is superimposed upon the others. 
Three factors determine that a film made this way will have a texture more 
muted and less marked by "collision" montage than the post-edited films. 
First, a certain calculus of change is inherent in the method; its limits are 
controllable, but as the control gets more and more precise, the subject 
must become more static and the intervals more regular. Second, the in- 
evitable superimposition of junctures makes for softer transitions. Third, 
the method from the first implies a stationary subject, while it absolutely 
excludes such radical collisions as change of film stock, mixing black and 
white with color, and switching to negative, all of which Markopoulos 
has done at one time or another in his career. 

In Ming Green (1966) Markopoulos gives us a portrait of his apart- 
ment. Through the window we see trees. After a short moment of black- 
ness we see the trees again, with still other trees superimposed. Then a 
view looking down at the garden below is intercut with blackness (eleven 
frames of the garden eight times, with a variation of nine to thirteen frames 
of black in each interval), giving the impression of a winking image. On 
the eighth view of the garden the trees reappear in superimposition. 

Within the room, a close-up of the buds of a flower in a vase quickly 
shift focus. A bright red chair at a typing table alternates in flashes, at 
times in superimposition, with books on the window sill. Then several 
views of the window appear at the same time in a flood of light. A com- 
position with record jackets, two red chairs, and a lamp alternates with a 
rose. The rhythm varies in overlapping waves from long holds to quick 
flashes. Several compositions of the full room show the Ming green walls 
from which the film takes its title. A bookshelf, a red drum, and an orange 
drape "wink" in syncopation on the screen. Then a different bookshelf 
appears with superimpositions of the plaster texture of the wall and a 
close-up of a casually thrown white shirt. Finally, over recurrent flashes of 
the orange drape, a framed photograph of the film-maker's father appears. 
The white shirt appears in eight-frame-long flashes over a dim photograph 
of the film-maker's mother. The superimpositions end; there is a clear hold 
on this photograph. When it goes out of focus, the film ends. 

The orchestration of color, the controlled metrics of the flashing and 
superimposing images, the sureness of the composition, and the careful 
placement of musical excerpts make this film one of Markopoulos's most 
successful achievements of in-the-camera editing. With unusual structural 



control he builds the intensity of his images from the opening with trees 
and garden, through the pivotal introduction of the red chair, to a senti- 
mental but in no way maudlin climax with the shirt and photographs. 

In his article, "The Event Inside the Camera," he reminds us of the 
technical achievements of George Melies and D. W. Griffith in creating 
effects within the camera. He lists the advantages of this method of work- 

The event inside the camera leads, according to the technical 
and aesthetic skills of the filmmaker, to: (a) editing; editing di- 
rectly in the camera; (b) creating effects, filmic nuances, with the 
camera itself. The advantages of editing in the camera have eco- 
nomic and aesthetic values; for by editing in the camera one 
must be more and more exact; the idea and the image more 
concentrated; the result a more brilliant appeal to the mind and 
dormant senses. 17 

As Markopoulos indicates, one cannot discount the economic advan- 
tage of editing within the camera. By comparison to any other genre, 
school, or period of film-making, the new America film artist creates his 
works with an astounding economy. Still, the cost of paying laboratories 
to print films (and Markopoulos had his splicing for Twice a Man, Himself 
as Herself, and The Illiac Passion done in a laboratory according to his 
precise indications on the frame) and the expense of raw materials, devel- 
oping, and renewal of equipment, is an enormous and often defeating 
financial burden on an individual without outside aid. Thus for the prolific 
artist, editing within the camera has a decided financial advantage, partic- 
ularly for Markopoulos, who had first used this method in Lysis and Char- 
mides. He revived this method after editing The Illiac Passion, while that 
film was sitting in the laboratory awaiting splicing and a complex form of 
printing that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars if he had not 
reformulated his conception and relinquished his desire for certain special 

The Illiac Passion culminates fifteen years of successive projects for a 
film based on the Prometheus myth. The first script the film-maker pre- 
pared for it appeared as early as Swain. At the beginning of that film the 
hero picks up the script in a field and dances with it in fast motion, just 
before the intercutting of the dead bird and mating alligators. 

In a text written around 1949, he speaks of his aspiration toward "my 
ultimate universal films": 

"Prometheus" would be in color. In the opening scene a fig- 
ure of "Prom" would appear alone in a great valley and there 
he would symbolically nail himself to the "world" by raising his 
hands to the sky — many figures would come to see him — Posei- 
don, Io, Hermes, etc. "Prometheus" scenes would be filmed in 



one locale — the various other sections would be filmed in vari- 
ous countries. Io in Egypt, Hermes as a medieval figure in En- 
gland, etc. All of these would be spliced together and we would 
have a truly "universal" film. There would be no dialogue ex- 
cept at the end, when the camera sinks into the ocean. Prome- 
theus will say, "Behold me, I am wronged." Not only would he 
say it in English but other voices would be heard as if echoes in 
other languages. 18 

The title goes back to the mid-1950s, to the section title of his long 
poem, Angelica Clamores. There it was spelled "The Iliac Passion." It 
refers, of course, to the iliac region of the body where the liver is found, 
the locus of Prometheus's "passion" and the object of Zeus's torture. 

His note for the New York premiere of the film will be the starting 
point of my analysis: 

The llliac Passion is the odyssean journey of a film-maker 
amongst the characters of his imagination. That is to say, Mar- 
kopoulos used as his point of departure the Greek myths, uni- 
versal in essence, even to the present day, and from these was 
inspired to discover the various personalities inherent in these 
mythic themes from everyday life. For his characterizations he 
selected the exciting personalities which were in the scene, circa 
1964-66 in New York City. 

The llliac Passion retells the passions of one man, the figure 
who crosses Brooklyn Bridge at the beginning of the film, comes 
to the Mother Muse, then proceeds to the forest in the tradition 
of, say, all heroes, perhaps, Zarathustra, and there under an ap- 
ple tree communes with his selves. These selves are recreated by 
some twenty-five characters; and each character or set of charac- 
ters relate a complete situation. Yet each situation is summed up 
as the very Being of the only protagonist in the true sense of the 
word, the hero of The llliac Passion, who is without name. It is 
as if the characters were the very molecules which made up the 
protagonist. It should be noted that Markopoulos continues his 
intricate and basic complement to classic editing, in his further 
use of the single frame, as an equally important component in 
editing: better yet, in telling his story to the New Cinema Film 
Spectator. As for the narrative: it is taken from the translation 
of the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. Not only is the 
text read by Markopoulos in a highly original manner which en- 
hances the theme of the film, but he also, at the same time, fre- 
quently appears in the film himself. Always urging the film to its 
natural conclusion. It is like Andre Gide in his most famous 
novel, Les Faux Monnayeurs, reviewing his characters. 



Richard Beauvais — Prometheus; David Beauvais — his con- 
science; Robert Alvarez — Narcissus; Taylor Mead — the Demon 
or Sprite; Sheila Gary — Echo; Mrs. Peggy Murray — The Muse; 
Tom Venturi — Hyacinthus; Tally Brown — Venus; Kenneth King — 
Adonis; Margot Brier — Pandora; Paul Swan — Zeus; Wayne 
Weber — Icarus; Carlos Anduze — Hades; Stella Dundas — The 
Moon Goddess; John Dowd — Endymion; Philip Merker — Apollo; 
Beverly Grant — Persephone and Demeter; Clara Hoover — Io; 
Gregory Battcock — Phaeton; and the Film-maker Markopoulos. 19 

Like Anger in his notes for Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Mar- 
kopoulos has several figures in his film whom he does not identify in this 
note. This may be only marginally successful because, again like Anger, 
he has sometimes changed the identification from one god to another dur- 
ing the shooting or editing. Finally, in a film with so many characters 
flashing on the screen in simultaneous groupings, it is not easy to be con- 
fident one has correctly identified each figure every time he appears. 

One should say at this point that the sorting of the pantheon is not 
essential to the experiencing of the film. In fact, as the note suggests, the 
fusion of the gods is more significant than their separate characters, and 
the form of the film promotes that fusion. Nevertheless, in a descriptive 
analysis, the individual identifications save lengthy paraphrases and follow 
the plan of the film-maker. 

The whole film is rounded by an image of an iron fence at dawn, 
which appears at the very beginning and the very end. The permutation 
of characters in between is the most complex of Markopoulos's career and 
one of the most elaborate in all of the cinema. 

Like Himself as Herself, The Illiac Passion has no recapitulation; in- 
stead, Markopoulos created several brief scenes in which sets of figures 
come together in the same frame although their myths are not related. One 
such scene in the middle of the film shows several characters crossing paths 
in Central Park; another shows Pandora, Orpheus, the Muse, Adonis, Pha- 
eton, and others doing a slow, circular dance. 

For the most part the film presents each myth individually, sometimes 
intercut with one or two others. In waves all the way through the film, 
parts of several myths come together, then separate. The action of the 
myths is continually punctuated by images ranging from very brief to 
whole episodes of Prometheus. To a lesser but still great extent, it is also 
punctuated by the recurrence of the Muse or Sprite (a composite for Mar- 
kopoulos of Aeschylus's Force and Might); and finally the film-maker 
makes sudden incursions into the film: disentangling Persephone's scarves; 
taking a light-meter reading on a grand staircase; filming in a broken mir- 
ror; or tapping a lamp to give it a pendular swing. 

After the initial shot of the fence at dawn, a series of fades introduces 
many of the pantheon as they walk through New York's Central Park in 


a montage that uses imagery interwoven from all the seasons. In flashes, 
the costumed Persephone runs through the landscape with flowing crepe 
scarves. Markopoulos decided to introduce the fades after he saw how 
they worked in Eros, O Basileus. The fading continues to the end of the 
film and assumes a formal role almost equal to that of the single-frame 
transitions of images. 

On the soundtrack we hear the film-maker's voice reading from Tho- 
reau's translation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. He selects words for 
repetition as he reads, making the literal sense of the text thoroughly ab- 
stract. Markopoulos's rendering begins: "I, I, I, I contemplate far bounding 
earth, earth, earth, earth unapproached, approached, unapproached, ap- 
proached solitude, solitude unapproached, solitude, to the unapproached 
solitude." The primitive, incantatory quality suggests the mysterious re- 
ception of the gift of language which Prometheus gave to man more than 
the complex word formation and periphrasis of Aeschylus's style. 

A figure crosses Brooklyn Bridge, whose "adamantine structure" of 
stone and cable suggests to the film-maker the binding of Prometheus. In 
a transition of quickly intercut flames (recalling another of the god's gifts 
to man, fire) the figure encounters the Muse, a middle-aged, benevolent- 
looking lady posed on a rock. Prometheus himself appears and assumes a 
position as if bound to a tree, strikingly reminiscent of the Proustian "Pro- 
metheus" in Max Ernst's collage novel, La Femme 100 Tetes. The Sprite, 
or Demon, the most humorous character in the whole of Markopoulos's 
work, appears on a rock, hooting and gesturing; then he descends to taunt 
Prometheus at his tree. 

Some of the characters of The Illiac Passion dress conventionally, 
while others assume exotic costumes or appear primarily in the nude. The 
costumes, such as the Sprite's streaming red tassels, Icarus's mosaic wings 
with encrusted film strips, Poseidon's scuba-diving outfit, or Io's hieratic 
dress, were created by the film-maker, often with the aid of Jerome Hiler. 

I do not have the space in this book to begin an extensive analysis of 
The Illiac Passion. As an index of its complexity, I shall simply enumerate 
the mythic allusions in the order in which they occur in the film and the 
montage of parallels, anticipations, and returns by which they are joined. 

The first of the myths to be elaborated is that of Narcissus. Here, as 
with most but not all of the other myths, the presentation is schematic, 
with narrative dependence on both explicable and inexplicable objects. 
Narcissus is seen in a bath. A bronze bug appears on his body. He studies 
his face in a mirror of mica. Narcissus shares his cinematic time with 
Icarus, who is first seen eating an egg. For a few moments the rush of 
myths runs together; there are flashes of Orpheus, Persephone, and the 
Muse within the continuation of Narcissus's self-contemplation. Perseph- 
one and Hades making love gives way quickly to the introduction of Dae- 
dalus, an artisan with a goatee, who first appears smoking. The last stage 
of the Narcissus myth occurs with a superimposition of several views of 


his nude form dancing and writhing against a background of newspapers. 
The presentation of his body here, as elsewhere in the film with other 
figures, conforms to the postures of mannerist painting. 

Between scenes of Daedalus in his workshop and a somewhat later 
scene of him collapsing in the snow as he looks up and offscreen, presum- 
ably first at the flight and then at the fall of his son Icarus — between these 
fragments there are flashes of the female figure Markopoulos calls Echo, 
wandering in a yard among piles of desks and chairs, and of the Sprite 
confronting Prometheus. After Daedalus's scene in the snow, we see the 
body of Icarus lying on a beach as a storm whips up the waves in breakers 
and foam. Another juncture of myths brings Daedalus, Icarus, Persephone, 
and Hyacinthus, who is throwing a pencil instead of the traditional quoits, 
together with a figure of Eros stretching red ribbons like a bow. Out of 
this cluster, scenes of Icarus come to dominate. We see his wings; then an 
apple is rolled over his naked body. 

The image of the apple found its way into the film through an inter- 
esting set of associations, rather typical of the aesthetic transition from 
literary to cinematic in Markopoulos's work. A friend told him of the 
Propertius poem (Book I, Elegy 3) in which the drunken poet returns home 
to find his mistress asleep. He playfully rolls an apple over her torso until 
she awakens and immediately begins to criticize him. In Markopoulos's 
use of this image, the apple is sensually rolled over the body of Icarus by 
the film-maker himself. In "The Adamantine Bridge" he miscredits it to 
Catullus. Before beginning almost every film, Markopoulos undertakes ex- 
tensive reading, spends weeks in the library, researching sources, versions, 
analyses. Perhaps he never did so as extensively as for The Illiac Passion. 
An alchemy such as the incident above suggests has been the typical fruit 
of his researches. 

Like Twice a Man, The Illiac Passion has scenes shot for synchronous 
sound and later used silently. The nude figure of Prometheus writhes and 
speaks, punctuated in the film by the droll image of the Sprite swaying 
and hollering at the top of a tree. After this pivotal moment, we see no 
more of Narcissus, Daedalus, Icarus, Echo, Hyacinthus, or Apollo. New 
figures are introduced, and some who briefly appeared before, such as 
Persephone, are elaborated later. 

Switching between her earthly role as Demeter and her subterranean 
guise as Persephone (Markopoulos compounded the two), the twin god- 
dess appears superimposed under a fountain. Dressed in brown, she wan- 
ders through a forest, makes love with Hades, and feels her way through 
the mist. Her unearthly movements continue into and through the several 
scenes of Aphrodite and Adonis, which are the longest in the film. Aph- 
rodite, with obese sensuality, was inspired, Markopoulos has said, by 
Shakespeare's version of the myth in his poem "Venus and Adonis." 
Adonis is by contrast a thin youth. We see them in bed, in a quarry where 
Adonis is sun-bathing, performing a ritual marriage in an empty church, 


and smoking a hookah. When she kisses him, the film-maker intercuts the 
colored flares that occur at the end of a roll of film from overexposure to 
the light. It is in the midst of their story that we see several figures as if 
dancing on the beach — the Muse, Pandora, Adonis, Orpheus, Eurydice, 
and Phaeton. The conclusion of Aphrodite and Adonis coincides with the 
end of Persephone/Demeter's appearance on the screen. 

The recurring image of Prometheus at this phase suggests a painting 
by Magritte: fire is superimposed as if in the foreground and deep through 
the outline of his nude back a street receding into the night can be seen. 
Briefly, an aged Zeus accepts a cup from the naked Ganymede. Poseidon, 
played by Andy Warhol before a backdrop of two of his large flower 
paintings, furiously pumps an Exercycle and talks to the naked Prometheus 
on the floor in front of him. 

With the introduction of his hieratic Io, the film moves toward its end. 
The scenes of Orpheus and Eurydice are intercut with her unheard speech. 
Orpheus walks out of a tavern in a panic. He and Eurydice appear walking 
as if out of Hades, with black veils over their heads; when they prema- 
turely remove them, she disappears from his embrace in a series of jump- 
cuts. Io and Prometheus meet at a lighthouse in the winter, while Orpheus 
and Eurydice appear in a kitchen eating melon. A hand rests on the fence 
of the opening shot; when it leaves the frame, the film comes to its end. 

The Illiac Passion is clearly Markopoulos's most ambitious achieve- 
ment so far. To sustain and control such a large and diversified form he 
called upon all his powers of formal invention. Numerous plans, tech- 
niques, and strategies were tested and discarded. Early in the planning of 
the film he wrote: 

Prometheus, that project of many years, seems to be grow- 
ing heavily. I think of making each of the characters in Prome- 
theus, creating them out of single frames. The Character of Pro- 
metheus would appear at such a rapid pace that the audience 
might sit through the filmic movement of the character for an 
hour and not realize it! Then would follow the movements of 
the other characters; and finally the final movement, the emo- 
tions, interrelated of all the characters, that is the theme, visu- 
ally, cinematic with sound, would be expounded. 20 

During the first weeks of shooting, he collected leaves, rocks, objects from 
the scene, which he planned to collage into the film stock as Stan Brakhage 
had done in Mothlight and Dog Star Man: Part Two, but the plan was 

All through the editing he wanted to print the film on 35 mm with 
different screen portions assigned to Prometheus and to the myths around 
him. This plan underwent its own variations, and I do not know what 
version of it the laboratory was instructed to execute. In a letter of June 



26, 1964, long before the shooting was complete, the film-maker drew me 
the following plan for the printing which will suggest the complexity and 
expense involved: 

Now, I am so pressed for time; but I do want to show you 
a diagram of how my film will look on the screen; and hope 
you will be able to figure it out. Here it is: 

*The 35 mm. will at times appear as a single or longer shots: 
sometimes superimposed. Both color and black and white. At 
times the 16mm. frame will be enlarged: and at times the 8mm. 
frame which will make it grainy: the 8 mm. 
**The 1 6mm. will be in color and the heart of the film with the 
greatest variations occurring in that section of the screen. 
***The 8mm. will be like the most inner consciousness which 
probably is unreachable. 

The laboratory told the film-maker that his plan would cost tens of 
thousands of dollars to realize. He tried to raise the money. Then, at the 
end of 1967, just before the fourth Experimental Film Competition Bel- 
gium, he very quickly got the footage into shape for conventional printing. 
In this last-minute change, a film that went to the laboratory originally as 
three hours long came out lasting ninety minutes. The difference between 
the film as now seen and the staggeringly ambitious montage that went to 
the laboratory in 1966 will always be a mystery. 

When Markopoulos obliquely writes in his introductory note that 
"each situation is summed up as the very Being of the only protagonist in 
the true sense of the word," he identifies himself with the Romantic tra- 
dition. That tradition, as I have already stated, and will continue to am- 
plify throughout this book, dominates the aesthetics of the American 
avant-garde film. It manifests itself differently in the works of the different 
artists (Anger and Markopoulos are less reluctant than others to embrace 
Romanticism without reconstruction), but it manifests itself persistently. 
As Harold Bloom observed of the twentieth century tradition in English 
poetry, "every fresh attempt of Modernism to go beyond Romanticism 
ends in the gradual realization of the Romantic's continued priority." 21 
Even in his approach to Hellenic mythology Markopoulos follows the 
strategies the Romantics found most successful; The Illiac Passion has less 
in common with Aeschylus's play than with Shelley's vision in Prometheus 


Unbound, particularly with the symphonic rapture of its apocalyptic final 
act. Shelley too saw Prometheus as the unitary man tormented by his di- 
vided selves, and he interiorized the Aeschylean conflict. In Markopoulos's 
modernist inflection of the Romantic Prometheus, the whole struggle with 
Zeus (Aeschylus's one surviving play of the trilogy; Shelley's First Act) 
disappears. In the vacuum he has supplied a new dimension: the relation 
of the film-maker to his film. 

The Romantic posture did not rest well with Maya Deren. She strug- 
gled against it in her own films, and labeled them "classicist." She opposed 
Anger and later Brakhage when his work veered toward Romanticism. Her 
contact with Markopoulos, though, was minimal. When she was exercis- 
ing some limited power through the Creative Film Foundation, he was in 
Greece making Serenity; she died soon after he returned. They, more than 
any of the other film-makers I shall be considering, attacked the dialectics 
of narrative time in their films. Maya Deren devoted meticulous attention 
to the subversion of sequence and space-time connections. But ultimately 
her aesthetic of transfiguration is an affirmation of the presence of time in 
its logical order. Markopoulos cut the Gordian knot; the simultaneity of 
his narrative structures abolished or at least scorned time. The first ap- 
proach is a modified classicism, the other purely Romantic. 

Harold Bloom has used Hart Crane's phrase "the visionary company" 
to call attention to the confidence of the major English Romantic poets of 
the nineteenth century that they were the inspired prophets of a tradition 
stemming from the Bible and continuing through Spenser, Shakespeare, 
and Milton to them. In Markopoulos's article, "Projection of Thoughts," 
one finds the following enthusiastic appraisals of the role of the American 
avant-garde film-maker: 

The film-makers who have banded together under the auspices 
of the Film-Makers' Cooperative have each and every one of 
them that divine fire and confidence which the ancient Greeks 
called tbrasos. . . . Furthermore, I would venture to suggest that 
only in the motion picture as an art form and that means imme- 
diate and continued experimentation/creativity/inspiration while 
at work, is there the truth of what we enjoy naming Reality. 22 

Taken as a whole his writings are a continued ode to the process of 
film-making in itself and as a source of revelation to the film-maker. Every- 
thing else, from the audience's comprehension to the finished work of film, 
is secondary. One is reminded of Sidney Peterson's "A Note on Comedy 
in the Experimental Film," when Markopoulos describes in "Institutions, 
Customs, Landscapes" the projection of the rushes of The Illiac Passion 
for the cast and friends: 

This festival of the emotions of the spirit, of the mind, continues 
week after week. Its intention is perhaps Dionysian, and the 

I 5 2 


New Cinema Spectators enter as freely into it as the ancients en- 
tered into their Dionysian revels. . . . Often, when the footage 
projected is a work in progress . . . the New Cinema Spectator 
finds himself engulfed with a divine frenzy or enthusiasm, shar- 
ing the excitement of the film-maker himself. 23 

The first film Markopoulos made after moving to Europe was Bliss 
(1967), a study of a small church in Greece, edited in the camera and 
reminiscent of Ming Green. His next was a long film, Gammelion (1968). 
That film had its origin in a visit he paid to Caresse Crosby's castle Roc- 
casinabalda in 1961 while Serenity was being shown as part of a New 
American Cinema Exposition at the Spoleto Festival. Soon after visiting 
the castle he prepared a meticulous adaptation of Julien Gracq's novel, he 
Chateau d'Argol, with Roccasinabalda in mind. Like all of his detailed 
scripts, of which this was the last, the film was never made. He wanted to 
shoot Eros, O Basileus there before he settled upon a New York loft as 
the location. 

In the summer of 1967, with enough money for only two rolls of color 
film — about seven minutes' running time — he went to the castle and shot 
very short shots of the surrounding valley, the walls, ramparts, gardens, 
corridors, a red spot that might be blood on the road, the frescoes, etc. 
Out of that material he made one of his major works. 

Gammelion takes its title from the ancient Greek month suitable for 
marriage. The film is structured by a thousand slow fades in and out of 
black-and-white leader, which extend its time to 59 minutes. As the screen 
slowly winks from light to dark and the reverse, tiny shots — sometimes 
just single frames — are interjected of the landscape around the castle. We 
gradually move closer and closer to it, view the corridors, glimpse a nude 
couple in the frescoes, and then move outside again. On the soundtrack 
there are passages of music from Roussel, the sound of horses' hooves over 
pavement, and the voice of the film-maker reading Rilke's lines (later re- 
peating them in reverse order): "To be loved means to be consumed. To 
love means to radiate with inexhaustible light. To be loved is to pass away, 
to love is to endure." 

The impression of Gammelion is unlike that of any other Markopou- 
los film. It is at once terribly spare and very rich. The unmoving images 
(there may be a slight flutter in the castle's flag, but that would be all), the 
lack of figures other than the couple in the fresco, who first appear so 
quickly they might be actual, and the total lack of incident in the film 
create the aura of a fiction without elaborating any specific fiction. Mar- 
kopoulos wrote that before going to Roccasinabalda he thought he would 
make a film that suggested in pictures the sense of smell (as his and other 
silent films have suggested sounds), but that he gave the idea up before 
shooting. Gammelion does not evoke odors and perfumes; yet it reverber- 
ates with a vitality beyond what it explicitly shows. It suggests, through 
the possibility of blood on the road, through the very emptiness of the 


castle which is obviously not abandoned, and above all through the sound, 
a permutation of novelistic situations as the film progresses. Again the 
artist seems to have returned, always in fresh ways, to the enchanted house 
of Psyche, Swain, Twice a Man, and Himself as Herself. 

The making of Gammelion in Italy coincided with the emergence in 
America of a new form, the structural film. In that form the overall shape 
of a film is its predominant characteristic, as the even sequence of fades is 
the overriding formal principle of Gammelion. The structural film repre- 
sents in the history of the American avant-garde film as important a de- 
velopment as either the trance film or the mythopoeic film. 

In the late 1960s the structural film, and its derivative, the participa- 
tory film, followed the mythopoeic form. The causes of this evolutionary 
shift are too complex to pinpoint. It is certainly not a case of one artist 
creating something which others imitate. The emergence was too general 
and was manifest in the works of too many otherwise opposed film-makers 
for that to be the case, although the question of temporal priorities seems 
to have been an obsession of the film-makers themselves. Regardless of the 
cultural factors that caused these shifts, we can see in the films of Gregory 
Markopoulos both an internal consistency and an evolution parallel to the 
general evolution of the avant-garde tradition. 

Gregory Markopoulos was, from the beginning of his film-making ca- 
reer, an erotic poet of the cinema. If we consider his long films in the order 
of their making (not their release) — Twice a Man, The Illiac Passion, Him- 
self as Herself, Galaxie, The Divine Damnation, Eros, O Basileus, and 
finally Gammelion, we can trace the gradual diminution of narrative, but 
we see (with the portraits as an exception) a sustained dedication to the 
definition of physical and spiritual love in cinema. 24 

This page intentionally left blank 

he Lyrical Film 


proposed that the important stations of 
the evolution of the American avant-garde 
film were collective, and not the invention 
of any individual film-maker, the major 
exception has been the forging of the lyri- 
cal film by Stan Brakhage. 1 The pervasive- 
ness of the lyric voice in cinema among 
the works of neophytes in the late 1960s, 
a decade after Brakhage's formative works 
in that mode, was so great that it seemed 
that that way of film-making was com- 
pletely natural and must have existed ab 
origine. Harold Bloom's observation about 
Wordsworth's achievement could be ap- 
plied to Brakhage: 

Nor can I find a modern lyric, how- 
ever happily ignorant its writer, which 
develops beyond or surmounts its debt 
to Wordsworth's great trinity of Tin- 
tern Abbey, Resolution and Indepen- 
dence, and the Intimations of Immor- 
tality ode. The dreadful paradox of 
Wordsworth's greatness is that his un- 
canny originality, still the most aston- 
ishing break with tradition in the lan- 


guage, has been so influential that we have lost sight of its au- 
dacity and its arbitrariness. 2 

In this chapter I shall retrace the history of the lyrical film through the 
early evolution of Brakhage's cinema and observe its influence where it has 
been most fruitful, in the films of Bruce Baillie. 

Stan Brakhage is so prolific that it would be impossible to give even 
a cursory analysis of all of his films in this book. At the time of the first 
edition of this book, he had made seventy-eight films; by the third edition, 
he had completed nearly three hundred. 3 Several of those works are made 
up of separable parts, edited to be complete films in themselves. Five or 
six years younger than Anger, Markopoulos, and Harrington, he made his 
first film five years after they started. As an energetic and candid film- 
maker still in his teens, Brakhage assumed their discarded reputations as 
the enfants terribles of the avant-garde film. Unlike Anger and Markopou- 
los he did not begin brilliantly; it was only after many films that his work 
began to approach the intensity of Fireworks and Psyche. 

The 1950s were quiet years within the American avant-garde cinema. 
The enthusiastic surge of the late 1940s had ended; Peterson had stopped 
making films; Broughton was in retirement; Deren produced only one film; 
and Anger and Markopoulos spent most of that decade on frustrated pro- 
jects. Nor was there a significant influx of new artists until the very end 
of the decade. Thus the figure of Stan Brakhage, making between one and 
five films every year from 1952 to 1958 and struggling to create a new 
form for himself, dominates the history of the radical film during that time. 

The version of the erotic quest in all of his early films affirms again 
and again an unredeemed pessimism, not even momentarily relieved. Freud 
had never meant as much to any other American avant-garde film-maker. 
Brakhage even initiated an ambitious Freudfilm but failed to bring it off. 
He was unwilling to accept the trace film as a suitable form until he had 
reconstructed it on his own terms. These early works vacillate between a 
dramatic realism and Expressionism. 

In his third work, Desistfilm (1954), he liberated his camera from its 
tripod and filmed a teen-age party, with five boys and only one girl. He 
successfully objectified the argument between Realism and Expressionism 
that was informing his art. From a beginning in which each of the char- 
acters is painfully isolated, though cramped in a small room (one plays 
guitar, another builds a house of cards, still others make smoke solipsist- 
ically, pull lint from their navels, or make a fan of burning matches), the 
film moves to the teasing of a Pan-like youth, glimpsed at times in the 
nude. The boys toss him in a blanket and chase him through the woods 
at night, while a couple remains behind; their discreet lovemaking is seen 
from behind distorting windows. That distortion is removed with the sud- 
den reappearance of the group, who glare at the lovers in clear focus. 

While Brakhage was making his early films he was also directing a 
theater company composed of the actors who appeared in his films. The 



company undertook ambitious projects for summer tourists in Central 
City, Colorado. After dropping out of Dartmouth College, Brakhage had 
gone to San Francisco in the hope of studying with Peterson at the Cali- 
fornia School of Fine Arts. But that year the film program had just been 
terminated. He returned to San Francisco a couple of years later and took 
the room of James Broughton, who had left for Europe, in the house of 
the poet Robert Duncan and the painter Jess Collins, who is known by 
his first name. His fifth film, In Between (1955), his one essay in explicit 
dream structure, uses Jess as an actor and attempts to translate into cinema 
the dream world of his art. 

In Between takes its title film from the space of fantasy in between 
the film's framing images of the protagonist sleeping and waking. The 
dream moves from a neo-classical cloister to an abstract montage of colors, 
flowers, and cats, ending in a nightmare as a carved animal menaces the 
dreamer. In Between is distinctly minor Brakhage, even when compared 
to his early achievements. Yet like Desistfilm it shows a formal advance; 
here for the first time Brakhage develops what he called "plastic cutting," 
or the joining of shots at points of movement, close-up, or abstraction to 
soften the brunt of montage. Ostensibly this method was first used here 
to render dream changes, but in later Brakhage films it becomes a formal 
characteristic of his work. 

Brakhage's final version of the trance film appears in four works — The 
Way to Shadow Garden (1955), Reflections on Black (1955), Flesh of 
Morning (1956), and Daybreak and Whiteye (1957). After these, the form 
ceased to have significance for emerging avant-garde film-makers. Of the 
four, Reflections on Black is the most complex. The Way to Shadow Gar- 
den, the most orthodox trance film of the other three, contains the first of 
Brakhage's "metaphors on vision" in the final minutes, when its hero, 
overwhelmed by adolescent frustrations, gouges out both his eyes and the 
film plunges into negative, showing him feeling his way through a garden 
of brilliant white flowers in a symbolical night. In Flesh of Morning Brak- 
hage managed to film himself in a masturbation fantasy. The twin film 
Daybreak and Whiteye opposes a closely held jump-cut view of a woman 
waking, dressing, and walking out to a bridge — presumably to kill her- 
self — with a subjective view of someone trying to write a love letter and 
pacing back and forth in a room which looks out on a barren snow scene; 
the camera is held as if from the subject's position: we only see his hand 
in the film. 

Reflections on Black is a trance film striving for a new form that has 
not yet been born. The "visions" of a blind man give the film its shape. 
On a street, he passes a prostitute, ignores her, then enters a tenement. He 
climbs three stories, at each of which he "sees" in a visionary sense, where 
fantasy and sight mingle together, three different incidents of erotic frus- 
tration. By the time Brakhage made this film, he had begun to transcend 
the distinction between fantasy and actuality, moving into the cinema of 
triumphant imagination. The crossing of that threshold came later and at 

i 5 8 


greater cost for Brakhage than for others, but once he had achieved it, the 
scope of his investigation of the perimeters of the imagination extended 
wider than that of any of his contemporaries. 

Brakhage tried to reach beyond singular and personal agony by com- 
paring three episodes in Reflections on Black. At the same time he tenta- 
tively proposed his version of the identity of erotic and aesthetic quests. 
He affirmed the physicality of the film material within the context of the 
blind man's "vision." Flashes or film flares — the stippled black-and-white 
effects that appear at the end of a roll of film because of exposure to and 
leaking of light — are intercut with the first walk of the blind man. Like 
the negative in The Way to Shadow Garden, they are metaphors of vision. 
Later, more emphatically, the film-maker scratched with a sharp instru- 
ment on the film stock itself, so that a set of brilliant white stars shimmers 
over the blind man's eyes, changing slightly from frame to frame. By at- 
tacking the surface of the film and by using materials which reflect back 
on the conditions of film-making, Brakhage begins to formulate an equa- 
tion between the process of making film and the search for consciousness 
which will become more clearly established in his later work as he gains 
greater confidence in the truth of the imagination. 

In the first of the scenes which the blind man witnesses within his 
limited imagination, a clear line is drawn between hallucination and ac- 
tuality. A woman whose love for her husband is frustrated by his bitterness 
hallucinates that he embraces her while he is shaving, but a puzzled look 
from him brings her out of her daydream. Next, she thinks he has hanged 
himself as she sees his shadow in the next room, but he is merely changing 
an overhead light bulb. We leave her dropping dish after dish (jump-cuts) 
in her neurosis. At the second story, the voyeur himself takes part in the 
sexual quest. His eyes see again, and he begins to make love to a woman. 
When he rests her on a couch, her husband enters, and the white stars 

Scratching on film as a 
"metaphor on vision" in 
Stan Brakhage's 
Reflections on Black. 



appear instantly in his eyes. The final episode is introduced by scratches 
of stars bursting on black leader, as if we too were seeing through the 
blind man's eyes. Here the masturbation of a woman is recorded symbol- 
ically by an intercutting of her twitching fingers with a pot of water on 
her stove that boils over. 

Reflections on Black was the first film Brakhage made after moving to 
New York. While he was there, he initiated a new direction in his work 
almost by accident. Joseph Cornell, the collagist and Surrealist box maker, 
wanted someone to film the Third Avenue El before its destruction. Parker 
Tyler gave him Brakhage's telephone number. When Cornell called, ac- 
cording to Brakhage's account, the young film-maker had to admit he had 
never been on the El. That ended the conversation and, he thought, his 
election to make the film. But the next day he received in the mail two 
tokens for the El. Cornell supplied the materials, and Brakhage made Won- 
der Ring (1955). 

Faced for the first time with the need to make a film without any 
skeletal drama or even an actor, Brakhage called upon and amplified the 
repertory of technical strategies he had used in his earlier work. The free- 
wheeling camera movement of Desistfilm, however, is notably absent. 
Wonder Ring records a trip on the El as if it were a round dance. Its formal 
texture springs from an alternation of plastic cutting with collision mon- 
tage, the repetition of shots and of slow panning camera movements, and 
rippling distortions from an imperfect window in the car. Brakhage assem- 
bled the minute parts of his film in a continual flow of movements; not 
only of the train itself, whose forward motion is inferred from the passing 
sights outside the window, but also of reflections moving in the opposite 
direction within the car, and of the bouncing patches of sunlight inter- 
secting both the movement of the train and the inverted movement of its 
reflection. A continual, lateral rocking motion suggests the rattling of the 
train to the ear's imagination in this silent film. Finally, the rhythmic struc- 
ture follows the slowing down and speeding up of the train as it enters 
and leaves stations; for in those moments all the elements (passing view, 
reflection, and sun play) reduce, then pick up speed. 

The same year Cornell asked Brakhage to photograph a film for him 
of an old house that he liked which was about to be torn down. The film 
he made was called Tower House until Cornell edited it and renamed it 
with a phrase of Emily Dickinson's, Centuries of June. 

The encounter with Joseph Cornell opened a new direction for Brak- 
hage's work. The shooting of Tower House and the editing of Wonder 
Ring were his first experiences with the sensuous handling of a camera 
and the purely formalistic execution of montage. In his works of the fol- 
lowing two years we see side by side the purging of the black-and-white 
trance film — Flesh of Morning (1956), Daybreak and Whiteye (1957) — 
and the growth of a more abstract color form — Nigbtcats (1956) and Lov- 
ing (1957). Brakhage was striving in those years to bring into the abstract 
form the intensity of experience and the complexity of ideas he had 


achieved in his modified trance films; and he extended that effort toward 
synthesis into his theoretical formulations as well. With the making of 
Anticipation of the Night (1958), he forged the new form for which he 
had been searching: the lyrical film. At approximately the same time, he 
began writing Metaphors on Vision. 

The lyrical film postulates the film-maker behind the camera as the 
first-person protagonist of the film. The images of the film are what he 
sees, filmed in such a way that we never forget his presence and we know 
how he is reacting to his vision. In the lyrical form there is no longer a 
hero; instead, the screen is filled with movement, and that movement, both 
of the camera and the editing, reverberates with the idea of a person look- 
ing. As viewers we see this mediator's intense experience of seeing. In the 
lyrical film, as Brakhage fashioned it, the space of the trance film, that 
long receding diagonal which the film-makers inherited from the Lumieres, 
transforms itself into the flattened space of Abstract Expressionist painting. 
In that field of vision, depth and vanishing point become possible, but 
exceptional, options. Through superimposition, several perspectives can 
occupy that space at one time (although it was only after Anticipation of 
the Night that Brakhage began to explore superimposition). Finally, the 
film-maker working in the lyrical mode affirms the actual flatness and 
whiteness of the screen, rejecting for the most part its traditional use as a 
window into illusion. 

Joseph Cornell was not the sole influence in Brakhage's creation of the 
lyrical film. Ten years before Wonder Ring, Marie Menken had made her 
first film, Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945). Noguchi had asked her to 
look after his studio while he was away, and she decided to make an 
abstract film of her views of his sculpture. With a freely swinging camera, 
she shot rhythmic movements around the smooth, curved forms. 

Hers was one of the most subtle and nuanced inflections of the formal 
model based upon the perception of an implied mediator. In a remarkable 
series of disarmingly unpretentious films she demonstrated a rhythmic in- 
ventiveness perhaps previously unmatched in the cinema. In Notebook she 
stored fragments from all phases of her filmic career, from the mid-forties 
to the late sixties. There we can see how, at a time when most of her 
contemporaries were invoking the Dionysian imagination in their invented 
imagery, Menken was exploring the dynamics of the edge of the screen 
and playing with the opposition of immanent and imposed rhythm. The 
exquisite early "Raindrops" dramatizes the subtle wit of her vision of the 
perceptual model. As she waits behind the camera for a drop of rain on 
the tip of a leaf to gather sufficient mass to fall, we sense her impatience 
and even anxiety lest the film will run out on her; so an unseen hand taps 
the branch, forcing the drops to fall. Tampering this way with an otherwise 
straightforward observational film is characteristic of Menken, who cheer- 
fully incorporates the extraneous reflection of herself and her camera, even 
her cigarette smoke, into an animated fragment and who makes the very 


nervous instability of the hand-held camera a part of the rhythmic struc- 
ture of several films. 

In Arabesque for Kenneth Anger she offers her fellow film-maker a 
compliment and a complement to Eaux D' Artifice. Where Anger had 
printed his black and white images of the Tivoli garden through a blue 
filter onto color stock, Menken filmed a visit in his company to the Al- 
hambra, in mid-day, achieving a comparable deep blue tone through the 
deceptively naturalistic choice of light sources and the conventional blue- 
sensitive color film stock. The spiraling flight of a pigeon among the roof- 
tops of the Alhambra provides her with an initial rhythmical figure and a 
metaphor for her wildly eccentric camera movements. Against this she 
plays a second metaphor, again coyly naturalistic, of architecture reflected 
in a pool — a metaphor for the cinema's reduction of spatial configurations 
to a shimmering two-dimensional surface as well as a glancing allusion to 
Anger's "water works." The circles and swirls that her revolving camera 
imposes on the Moorish structures can be found translated into the rings 
that water dropping from fountains make in the pools reflecting the same 
buildings. This delicate mesh of observation and imposition, which ap- 
pears in almost all of Menken's films, inspired Brakhage, who radicalized 
it and systematically explored its potential for the invention of new forms. 

Menken and her husband, Willard Maas, were among the first people 
to treat Brakhage kindly when he came to New York. They were respon- 
sible for his first public screening at the Living Theater. Several of the 
strategies of Anticipation of the Night can be found in Menken's Note- 
book. In 1962 she gave it a definitive form. Within that work the sections 
"Raindrops" (thin rain hitting a pool, a drop slowly forming and falling 
from the tip of a leaf), "Greek Epiphany" (an Easter procession at night 
with only the lights of candles and lights of the church visible), "Night 
writing" (neon lights filmed with such quick movement that they appear 
to be brilliant calligraphy on the screen), and "Moon Play" (in which the 
moon seems to dance and jump about in the sky), all prefigure tactics 
employed in Anticipation of the Night. 

Both Whiteye and Loving prepare the way for Anticipation of the 
Night. The subjective posture of Whiteye reappears with a new richness 
in the later film. Again we can only see those parts of himself that the man 
looking out at the world sees without the aid of a mirror: his arm, and, 
repeatedly, his shadow. From Loving Brakhage takes for his subsequent 
work a modernist musical structure; in that film he perfected the rhythmic 
and contrapuntal premises of Wonder Ring. The camera sweeps past a 
couple making love in the grass. No master shot definitely establishes them 
in an "actual" space. Within the screen's space, they appear so close and 
in such a network of swift movements that often the viewer cannot sep- 
arate male from female, decide if it is the lovers or the camera that is 
moving, or in which direction the movement is going. 

The camera finds its way through leaves and branches before spotting 


the lovers, but once its sweeping motions catch them, the point of view 
shifts, and we see the sun, the sky in motion, and the trees as if from the eyes 
of the active lovers. When a foot presses against pine needles on the ground, 
the flowing imagery is arrested by a quick series of static shots of other nee- 
dles, as if to suggest by the abrupt, staccato editing the tickling pain of the 
foot. Brakhage freely mixes upside-down shots with his other material, and 
we again become aware of the blended perspectives — film-maker's and lov- 
ers' — when he uses a montage of short flares at the orgasmic climax of the 
short film. In Loving the editing is faster than anything Brakhage had done 
before; there are chains of shots, two, three, four, and five frames long, and 
often as many as twenty of them form one complex movement. 

Brakhage's poetic paraphrase of Anticipation of the Night follows the 
sequence and evokes the spirit of the film: 

The daylight shadow of a man in its movement evokes 
lights in the night. A rose bowl, held in hand, reflects both sun 
and moon-like illumination. The opening of a doorway onto 
trees anticipates the twilight into the night. A child is born on 
the lawn, born of water, with promissory rainbow, and the wild 
rose. It becomes the moon and the source of all night light. 
Lights of the night become young children playing a circular 
game. The moon moves over a pillared temple to which all 
lights return. There is seen the sleep of the innocents and their 
animal dreams, becoming their amusement, their circular game, 
becoming the morning. The trees change color and lose their 
leaves for the morn, become the complexity of branches on 
which the shadow man hangs himself. 4 

Here Brakhage takes up the opening of Meshes of the Afternoon and 
elaborates it in terms of a Petersonian consciousness. We see those parts 
of the body which a subject sees of himself: the shoulders, the legs, and 
especially the outlined image he projects in a shadow. For the first time 
Brakhage fully achieves a dialectical fusion of the image represented on 
the screen and the film-maker/subject's reaction to it. 

The great achievement of Anticipation of the Night is the distillation 
of an intense and complex interior crisis into an orchestration of sights 
and associations which cohere in a new formal rhetoric of camera move- 
ment and montage. The first images of the film counterpoint the soft 
brown shadow of the protagonist passing through a beam of light coming 
from an open door and a window with the jittery dance of fast-moving 
lights at night. In a series of variations the shadows of the protagonist are 
joined by the shadow of a rose floating in a glass bowl, and the night- 
lights, continuing their rhythmic opposition, fuse with flares from the ends 
of film rolls. In the course of the repetition, inversion, and variation of the 
sequence of shadows, the film proceeds from inside the house outward. 
The closing of the door recurs again and again throughout the whole first 


third of the film, marking the transition alternately with a shot of the 
slowly swinging wood of the door and with the moving reflection in its 

The retracing of phrases which gradually move forward reminds one 
of the syntax of Gertrude Stein's prose, a major influence on him: 

The voice Helen Furr was cultivating was quite a pleasant 
one. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivating was, some said, 
a better one. The voice Helen Furr was cultivating she cultivated 
and it was quite completely a pleasant enough one then, a culti- 
vated enough one then. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivat- 
ing she did not cultivate too much. She cultivated it quite some. 
She cultivated and she would sometime go on cultivating it and 
it was not then an unpleasant one, it would not be then an un- 
pleasant one, it would be a quite richly enough cultivated one, it 
would be quite richly enough to be a pleasant enough one. 5 

In describing the sequence of scenes Brakhage accurately chooses the 
verb "to become." Although the film plays with the counterpoint of hard 
and soft montage, as indicated in the opening collision of night and day 
shots, the major scenes blend into one another in a rhetoric of becoming. 
The significant transitions of large areas of film, unlike the counterpoint, 
are forecast in advance by a pattern of camera movement, a drift of colors, 
or the "soft" preview of a forthcoming image. Like the single-frame mon- 
tage of Markopoulos' mature style, the editing of Anticipation of the Night 
challenges the integrity of the shot as the primary unit of cinema. In its 
place, unlike Twice a Man, it proposes camera movement as the elemen- 
tary figure of filmic structure (the static being a rare and special case of 
movement). By artfully eliding shots with plastic cutting, Brakhage can 
present a complicated movement spanning actually disconnected spaces as 
a single unit. The elimination of depth inherent in shadows, night photog- 
raphy, and fast panning motions enhances the concentration of camera 
movement as a formal unifier. Nowhere in this film do we find the delib- 
erate use of foreground or background figures. 

A recapitulation of the initial shadows shows them in inverted order 
(door, window, doorway). Outside again, the camera catches the rainbow 
in the spray of a garden hose and blends it, at times harshly, at times 
softly, with night-lights and flares. 

In the course of the subsequent return to the day and night alternation, 
the sweeping camera passes the arm of a crawling baby. He returns to the 
infant's motions (again, as in Loving, "discovering" him in the garden) 
until the screen goes white in a close-up of his clothes. The intercutting of 
the baby's face entering the screen from different directions with wild cir- 
cular and irregular pans of the flora, calls to mind the opening of Meta- 
phors on Vision: 



Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an 
eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not 
respond to the name of everything but which must know each 
object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. 
How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling 
baby unaware of "Green?" How many rainbows can light create 
for the untutored eye? 6 

As the street lamps alternately proceed toward and recede from the 
camera, the views of the baby become more aerial and distanced. We see 
him in the context of his garden arena as we never saw the lovers of 
Loving. But here the perspective is clearly the film-maker's, and for him, 
the attempt to capture the vision of the child was a failure. 

A short mixture of what Marie Menken called both "Moonplay" and 
"Night Writing," here intercut, prepares the transition to an amusement 
park, where older children take rides in the night. In this passage the dom- 
inant range of colors tends to orange. Previously the street lamp images 
centered in blue, the garden in green, and the shadow-play brown and 

Even the shots of the children whirling on rides in the foreground with 
the lights of the park behind them have next to no depth on the screen. 
He intercuts the rides on the ferris wheel with those on the whip. The 
shots of these amusements grow shorter and less frequent as the nervous, 
jumping images first of the moon, then of the moon over a columned 
building called "the temple" in Brakhage's working notes for the film, 
assume the center of attention. 

The brown and yellow temple scenes blend with the blue street lamps, 
photographed in the rain. In this juxtaposition the first shots appear of 
children asleep, and as the changes grow quicker, the first quick glimpses 
of exotic animals are seen. The theme of the temple and the moon falls 
out of this fugue-like structure, leaving a montage of street lamps and 
sleeping children punctuated by dark passages and red neon flashes. 

In this context the close movements following the curved contour of 
a swan seem like part of a child's dream. The wings flap menacingly. Often 
in this part of the film the movements of the camera over the sleeping 
children appear on the screen upside-down. 

The street lamps have changed from blue to red. The first images of 
trees at dawn, intertwined with the children at sleep, indicate that the film 
is moving to its end. The light grows brighter; the rainy green-blue street 
lamps pass for the final time; and in the cloudy dawn the protagonist 
reappears. His hand ties a rope to a tree. Slowly, mixed with moving shots 
of trees, his bright shadow swings, like a pendulum, as he hangs himself. 

By the rigid standard of his subsequent aesthetic, Brakhage has criti- 
cized this ending as artificial and therefore wrong. Yet he hastens to add 
that while making the film (he edited it as he went along) he said to himself 
and others that he might hang himself for the finale, leaving a note to 


attach the footage of him hanging to the end of what he had already 
edited. He almost did kill himself by accident while filming that episode, 
he claims, although as a Freudian he interprets the "accident" as willful. 

Despite the film-maker's repudiation, Anticipation of the Night works 
beautifully in its totality. It describes the doomed quest for an absolutely 
authentic, renewed, and untutored vision. The tender rendering of the 
crawling baby, the riding, and finally the dreaming children offer only 
momentary solace — and a more profound despair in the recognition of the 
impossibility of regaining that kind of innocence — to the visionary pro- 
tagonist, who is seeking a cure to heal the irreconcilable divorce between 
consciousness and nature that he dreads. In his subsequent films through 
Songs (1964-1970), the estrangement from nature does not lessen; it may 
even become more acute, if that is possible. In any case, it becomes more 
explicit, but the film-maker responds less despairingly, with dialectical re- 
visions of that fundamental crisis. 

While he was making Anticipation of the Night, Brakhage married 
one of his students, Jane Collum. Many of his films from that point focus 
on the modalities of married life. In the interview which introduces Met- 
aphors on Vision, Brakhage attacks what he calls "one of the most dom- 
inant [myths] of this century," that an artist cannot be meaningfully mar- 
ried, with a sketch of how his wife has inspired and helped to make all of 
his films from the time of his marriage to the publication of that book. 

In the interview, the film-maker described the crucial decision for his 
work after Anticipation of the Night as the uprooting of drama from his 
films. Drama seems to be equated with a superficial view of external ac- 
tuality for him, and his rejection of it is couched in terms of the Romantic 
discovery of the instability of the self: 

I would say I grew very quickly as a film artist once I got 
rid of drama as prime source of inspiration. I began to feel all 
history, all life, all that I would have as material with which to 
work, would have to come from the inside of me out rather 
than as some form imposed from the outside in. I had the con- 
cept of everything radiating out of me, and that the more per- 
sonal and egocentric I would become, the deeper I would reach 
and the more I could touch those universal concerns which 
would involve all man. What seems to have happened since 
marriage is that I no longer sense ego as the greatest source for 
what can touch on the universal. I now feel that there is some 
other concrete center where love from one person to another 
meets; and that the more total view arises from there. . . . First I 
had the sense of the center radiating out. Now I have become 
concerned with the rays. You follow? It's in the action of mov- 
ing out that the great concerns can be struck off continually. 
Now the films are being struck off, not in the gesture, but in the 
very real action of moving out. Where I take action strongest 



and most immediately is in reaching through the power of all 
that love toward my wife, (and she toward me) and somewhere 
where those actions meet and cross, and bring forth children 
and films and inspire concerns with plants and rocks and all 
sights seen, a new center, composed of action, is made. 7 

The idea of the multiple self is also reflected in the working notes for 
Anticipation of the Night which Brakhage published as the fifth chapter 
of Metaphors on Vision, "Notes of Anticipation." There we find the fol- 
lowing fragment of a scenario: 


The rose as it may pertain to self. 
The self reflective among tree shadows. 
The self as a force of water. 
The dance of the twilight children. 

The children's faces in the night backed by artificial lighting. 
The water spots as fallen stars. 
The self reflected in black pools. 
The fires of night. 
The self afire. 

The passage of night events, shifts of scene, explosions. 

The self in a perpetual turn. 

The drunkenness becoming perpetual night. 

The self as God. 

The passages of memory as blocks of light suddenly thrown 

The self in parts played out as on a stage. 
The avalanches of white sheets. 8 

This passage is quoted as an index to the mentality of the film-maker, not 
as a guide to the finished film. Brakhage has repeated in all of his writings 
and in speeches that his films arose from visions and needs that could not 
be verbalized. For the chapter "His Story" in his book, he offers a brief 
preface, "being entirely composed of script and scenario fragments so lit- 
errealized that the necessity to visualize them never compulsioned the film- 
ing of them." The paradox of all of Metaphors on Vision is that it is a 
film-maker's book about the antagonism of language and vision. The 
penultimate chapter, "Margin Alien," in which the artist lists the literary, 
painterly, and musical influences he had to overcome in order to make 
films, ends "I am thru writing, thru writing. It is only as of use as useless." 

In his aesthetics Brakhage has revived and revised the Romantic dia- 
lectics of sight and imagination which had been refocused in American 
Abstract Expressionistic painting and American poetry (particularly in the 
work of Wallace Stevens) during the film-maker's intellectual formation. 


The history of that argument is worth consideration at this time. William 
Blake championed the imagination against the prevailing epistemology of 
John Locke, who maintained that both thought and imagination were ad- 
ditive aspects of the verbal and visual memory. Blake wrote, "I assert for 
My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is a 
hindrance & not Action" — a forecast of the phraseology of Abstract Ex- 
pressionism. "It is as the dirt upon my feet, No part of me. ... I question 
not my Corporeal or Vegative Eye any more than I would Question a 
Window concerning a Sight. I look thro' it & not with it." Wordsworth 
too writes of the tyranny of sight: 

I speak in recollection of a time 
When the bodily eye, in every stage of life 
The most despotic of our senses, gained 
Such strength in me as often held my mind 
In absolute dominion. 

(Prelude, XII, 12.7ft. ) 

Our philosophies and psychologies have shifted from the naturalism of 
Locke and his confidence in the senses. For some artists in the tradition 
of Blake and Wordsworth the eye now had a renewed and redemptive 
value. As Wallace Stevens puts it, 

The eye's plain version is a Thing apart, 

The vulgate of experience. 

("An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," 1-2) 

Brakhage claims to see through his eyes, with his eyes, and even the 
electrical patterns on the surface of his eyes. When he decided to become 
a film-maker he threw away his eyeglasses. At the beginning of his book 
he argues with the way language constricts vision and with the idea of 
sight built into the film-maker's tools. In "The Camera Eye," he writes: 

And here, somewhere, we have an eye (I'll speak for myself) ca- 
pable of any imagining (the only reality). And there (right there) 
we have the camera eye (the limitation of the original liar) . . . 
its lenses ground to achieve 19th Century Western compositional 
perspective (as best exemplified by the 'classic' ruin) ... its stan- 
dard camera and projector speed for recording movement geared 
to the feeling of the ideal slow Viennese waltz, and even its tri- 
pod head . . . balled with bearings to permit it that Les Sylphides 
motion (ideal to the contemplative romantic and virtually re- 
stricted to horizontal and vertical movements) . . . and its color 
film manufactured, to produce that picture post card effect (sa- 
lon painting) exemplified by those oh so blue skies and peachy 
skins. 9 



He proceeds with a program for bringing the camera into the twentieth 
century by distorting its lens, obliterating perspective, discarding the tri- 
pod, altering camera speeds, and changing film stocks. He calls for these 
home-made modifications in the name of the eye, demanding of the film- 
maker (actually of himself) a dedication to what he actually sees, not what 
he has been taught to see or thinks he should see. That the resulting version 
of space corresponds to that of Abstract Expressionism seems not to have 
occurred to Brakhage. His sense of vision presumes that we have been 
taught to be unconscious of most of what we see. For him, seeing includes 
what the open eyes view, including the essential movements and dilations 
involved in that primary mode of seeing, as well as the shifts of focus, 
what the mind's eye sees in visual memory and in dreams (he calls them 
"brain movies"), and the perpetual play of shapes and colors on the closed 
eyelid and occasionally on the eye surface ("closed-eye vision"). The imag- 
ination, as he seems to define it, includes the simultaneous functioning of 
all these modes. Thus Brakhage argues both with Blake and Locke, but 
his sympathies are with the former. Like the Romantics themselves, Brak- 
hage's work attempts to refine the visionary tradition by correcting its 

The Romantic strain in Brakhage emerges with the creation of the 
lyrical film and culminates in his essay in mythopoeia, Dog Star Man, and 
its extended version, The Art of Vision, which will be discussed in the 
following chapter. Brakhage began to shoot his epic two years after fin- 
ishing Anticipation of the Night. In the meantime, and through the shoot- 
ing of that long film, he continued to make short lyrical films that mark 
one of the great periods in American avant-garde film. In this series of 
films — Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Cat's Cradle (1959), Sirius 
Remembered (1959), The Dead (i960), Thigh Line Lyre Triangular 
(1961), Mothlight (1963), Vein (1964), Fire of Waters (1965), Pasht 
(1965) — Brakhage invented a form in which the film-maker could com- 
press his thoughts and feelings while recording his direct confrontation 
with intense experiences of birth, death, sexuality, and the terror of nature. 
These works have transformed the idea of film-making for most avant- 
garde artists who began to make films in the late sixties. 

Window Water Baby Moving and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular record 
the births of the film-maker's first and third children respectively. Between 
the two, finished only two years apart, there is a great shift in style: the 
former treats the occasion almost dramatically, although the montage at- 
tempts to relieve the drama which Brakhage obviously felt while shooting 
the film and seeing his first child born; the latter film centers itself more 
fully in the eyes of the film-maker as a visual and visionary experience. 
The difference between them is not simply a measure of experience (seeing 
a third child born as opposed to the first), but that is part of it. 

There is an interplay between the film-maker and his wife in Window 
Water Baby Moving that disappears in Thigh Line Lyre Triangular. The 
poetic fulfillment of that interplay comes at the moment late in the film 



when we see the excited face of Brakhage just after the child has been 
born. His wife, still on the delivery table, took the camera from him to 
get these shots. Earlier, they had photographed each other during an ar- 
gument, which Brakhage intercut with negative images of them making 
love in the film Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959). 

In no other film does Brakhage make as much of the reorganization 
of chronological time; for the most part, his lyrical films exist outside 
sequential time in a realm of simultaneity or of disconnected time spans 
of isolated events. Window Water Baby Moving begins with images of late 
pregnancy. The first shots are of a window, framed diagonally, intercut 
with flashes of blackness. Throughout the film Brakhage uses black and 
white leader to affirm the screen and the cinematic illusion as one of several 
tactics for relieving the dramatic tension built up as the moment of birth 

A rhythmic montage moves from the window to the light cast on the 
water in a bathtub where the pregnant wife is bathing. The camera is 
static, and the shots remain on the screen longer here than in other films 
of the same period. After a longish pause of blackness, we see Jane for the 
first time on the delivery table. At a painful moment in her labor, he cuts 
from her screams to her smiling face from the earlier episode and follows 
it with a recapitulation of the window and water shots. He flashes back 
to the earlier scene nine times, always showing it in a group of shots and 
always passing from one scene to the other on a plastic cut: for example, 
the glimpse of a window behind the held-up placenta, near the end of the 
film, initiates another cut to the window of the opening and a recapitu- 
lation of the sunlit images that follow it. Window Water Baby Moving 
ends with shots of the parents and the baby spaced amid flashes of white 
leader following the rhythmic pattern of the film's opening. 10 

In Thigh Line Lyre Triangular we see a radically transformed space. 
The passages of black and white leader are more insistent; there are twist- 
ing, anamorphic shots of Jane in labor; the montage mixes the birth with 
flaring shots of animals, a flamingo, and a polar bear from the out-takes 
of Anticipation of the Night. The entire film is painted over with colored 
dots, smears, and lines. The film begins with a painted stripe which seems 
to open up on a scene of childbirth with labor already underway. Under- 
neath the rapidly changing, painted surface, we see the doctor, the birth, 
the placenta, the smiling mother, but in an elliptical flow completely de- 
void of the suspense of the earlier film. Where Brakhage used plastic cut- 
ting to switch from present to past or future in his first birth film, he uses 
the painted surface to smooth out and elide the transitions from the birth 
to the strange upside-down appearance of the polar bear or the shot of 
the flamingo. 

Although we do not see him in this film, there is no doubt that we are 
looking at the birth through the eyes of the artist, whose eccentric vision 
is ecstatic to the point of being possessed. At the time of the birth he was 
sufficiently self-composed to pay close attention to the subtleties of his 

Abstract Expressionist space in Stan Brakhage's 
Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (handpainting over im- 
age) and Mothlight (collage of organic material in 
Mylar filmstrips). 


seeing while watching his wife give birth. In the interview at the beginning 
of Metaphors on Vision, he explains that 

only at a crisis do I see both the scene as I've been trained to 
see it (that is, with Renaissance perspective, three-dimensional 
logic — colors as we've been trained to call a color a color, and 
so forth) and patterns that move straight out from the inside of 
the mind through the optic nerves. In other words, in intensive 
crisis I can see from the inside out and the outside in. ... I see 
patterns moving that are the same patterns I see when I close 
my eyes; and can also see the same kind of scene I see when my 
eyes are open. . . . What I was seeing at the birth of Neowyn 
most clearly, in terms of this "brain movie" recall process, were 
symbolic structures of an animal nature. 11 

In the first chapter of his book Brakhage observes, "This is an age 
which has no symbol for death other than the skull and bones of one stage 
of decomposition . . . and it is an age which lives in total fear of annihi- 
lation." In Sirius Remembered and The Dead he searches for a deeper 
image of death. When his family's dog, Sirius, died, his wife did not want 
it buried. They left the body in the woods where it froze in the winter and 
rotted in the spring. Brakhage made periodic visits to it and filmed the 
stages of its decomposition. The title of his film puns on the memory and 
the reconstruction of the dog's members. 

Formally, Sirius Remembered is the densest of his films in the repeti- 
tive, Steinian style of Anticipation of the Night, and it introduces a new 
style, which finds its purest expression in The Dead. The opening passage 
resembles a fugue, as one sweep of the camera is followed by another, 
beginning a little earlier and going a little further, while the third carries 
on from the first. The speed of these alternations and the sudden changes 
they make by a reversal of direction, the injection of a brighter still image, 
or the occurrence of a long pan suggest that the fugue has been transposed 
to the micro-rhythms of post-Stravinskian music. The similarity of the 
shots and their reduction through movement to two-dimensional abstrac- 
tions fixes the attention on their rhythmic structure. 

The pattern of rhythms established in the opening shots continues 
throughout the film as its visual material becomes more complex. The film 
proceeds through fall to winter to spring, with some reversals and over- 
lapping of the seasons. Brakhage arrests the movement of the winter scenes 
with flashes of whiteness when the dog is covered by a layer of snow, to 
affirm the flat screen and puncture the illusion, but here also to suggest an 
emanation from the dog of pure white light. 

Midway the already complex rhythmic structure becomes com- 
pounded by superimposition. The second half of the film elaborates an 
intricate harmonics as the two layers of fugue-like rhythms play against 
one another. 

I 7 2 


In this film Brakhage views death as the conquest of the antagonist, 
nature, over consciousness. He illustrated this antagonism with a story of 
the visit of two friends during the making of the film: 

Suddenly I was faced in the center of my life with the death of a 
loved being which tended to undermine all my abstract thoughts 
of death. 

I remember one marvelous time which gave me the sense of 
how others could avoid it. [P.T.] and [C.B.] came to visit us and 
C. wanted to go out into the fields "to gather a little nature," as 
he put it. "Nature" was such a crisis to me at this time that I 
was shocked at that statement. [C] made some martinis, handed 
me one; and [P. and C], and I all went out into Happy Valley 
where they toasted the new buds of spring that were beginning 
to come up, etc., and marched right straight past the body of 
Sirius either without seeing it at all (any more than they can see 
my film Sirius Remembered) or else they saw it and refused to 
recognize it. [C] was envaled in the ideal of toasting the bud- 
ding spring and here was this decaying, stinking corpse right be- 
side the path where we had to walk, and he literally did not, 
could not, or would not see it. 12 

In the same interview he describes in detail how a mystical illumination 
helped him edit the film. 

The skeletal head of the dog in Sirius Remembered was the first of 
several conventional images which Brakhage has attempted to redeem 
from the realm of the cliche by looking at them freshly and presenting 
them in a novel form. Others are the image of the tombstone as a signif- 
icant image of death (The Dead), the heart as an image of love (Dog Star 
Man: Part Three), and flowers as an image of sexuality (Song XVI). 

While passing through Paris to work on a commercial project (for a 
long time Brakhage supported himself and his art by taking commercial 
assignments), he sneaked his camera into the Pere-Lachaise cemetery to 
film the monumental tombs in black-and-white. During the same trip he 
filmed people walking along the Seine in color from a slow-moving tourist 
boat on the river. At the end of a black-and-white roll, he took a shot of 
Kenneth Anger sitting in a cafe. 

When he returned to America, Brakhage associated Europe, Anger, 
and the two traditional images, the river and the tomb, with his thoughts 
on death. He says: 

I was again faced with death as a concept; not watching death 
as physical decay, or dealing with the pain of the death of a 
loved one, but with the concept of death as something that man 
casts into the future by asking, "What is death like?" And the 
limitation of finding the images for a concept of death only in 


J 73 

life itself is a terrible torture, i.e., Wittgenstein's Tractatus Log- 
ico-Philosophicus 6.4311: "Death is not an event of life. Death 
is not lived through. If by eternity is understood not endless 
temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who 
lives in the present. Our life is endless in the way that our visual 
field is without limit." 13 

He put the three images together — Anger, the tombs, and the Seine — to 
make The Dead. 

Nearly every image in the film appears in superimposition, which 
serves several formal functions which I shall enumerate as they appear, 
and one poetic function: to make a spectral light emanate from people and 
things, as if the spirit showed through the flesh and burst through the 
cracks in marble tombs. Visually, Brakhage relates this effect to a thermal 
light sometimes visible to the trained eye, and to the Anglo-Saxon allusions 
to aelf-scin, a fairy light that hovers on the horizon at dusk. 

The film opens with a pan up a Gothic statue, interrupted by flashes 
of negative. The black-and-white positive and negative have been printed 
on color stock, giving them a green-gray tint. From the color footage, only 
the blues of the water and occasional reds (sweaters, the oars of a rowboat) 
registered on the composite film. A quick image of Anger in the cafe 
changes to a double image of him as the negative is placed over the positive 
with left/right orientation reversed. The camera moves with fragments of 
rocking pans among gravestones and crypts upon which sporadic super- 
impositions briefly appear. This part of the film contains frequent sudden 
solarizations (the simultaneous printing of negative and positive, causing 
an instant flash or leap of the image on the screen). 

People, in blue and red, strolling along the banks of the river, appear 
over pans, sometimes upside-down, of the tombs. In this introduction of 
the theme of "the walking dead," as Brakhage calls these strollers, the 
tempo changes from slow, to staccato, to slow again, to staccato again, 
until the scene almost imperceptibly shifts from the superimposition of 
people with graves to a flow of superimposed cemetery images, a few 
frames out of synchronization, with its solarizing negative. The negative 
echoes the slow rocking of the positive images and pursues them like a 

The shifting of visual themes and their gradual evolution through syn- 
thesis and elaboration constitute a meditation on death and the spirit in 
which thoughts, in the form of images, are tested, then refined, and finally 
passed over. A persistent idea of the light behind the objects of sight haunts 
the mind's eye of the film-maker and the structure of his film. Through the 
medium of the river, the stress shifts from positive to negative. 

The climax of the film is its breakthrough into negative following the 
flashes of whiteness. Brilliant, pure white trees in a black sky and dark 
crypts with cracks of brightness rock across the screen, paced with black 
leader. The long rocking motions move first in one direction, then another, 



shifting with the black shots. There is a long movement containing four 
black pauses as the camera passes so close to large tombs that the light is 
completely cut off. The second of these is so long that one thinks the film 
might have ended. A short finale brings us back to the Seine, and the film 
ends on a slow movement across the shadow-marked marble wall of the 
river bank. 

In The Dead Brakhage uses the vicissitudes of his raw materials — 
different kinds of film stock, the imperfect printing of black-and-white on 
color material, the washout effect of certain bright superimpositions — as 
metaphysical illuminations. Out of the specifically cinematic quality of 
light as it passes through these materials, he moulds his vision of the light 
of death. In The Dead Brakhage mastered the strategy he had employed 
limitedly in Anticipation of the Night of presenting and rejecting tentative 
images of the essence he seeks to penetrate. The traditional symbols of the 
tombs and river and the absolute poles of blackness, whiteness, and neg- 
ative are the primary metaphors for death which he tests, varies, and re- 
jects. In the course of the film the process of testing, contemplating, and 
rejecting becomes more important than the images in themselves. 

His most radical exploration into the inflection of light through his 
raw materials initially occurred in response to his oppressive economic 
situation. When he had no money to buy film stock, he conceived the idea 
of making a film out of natural material through which light could pass. 
The clue to this came from his observing the quantity of glue and paint 
which Stephen Lovi had put on his film A Portrait of the Lady in the 
Yellow Hat (1962). Brakhage collected dead moths, flowers, leaves, and 
seeds. By placing them between two layers of Mylar editing tape, a trans- 
parent, thin strip of 16mm celluloid with sprocket holes and glue on one 
side, he made Mothlight (1963), "as a moth might see from birth to death 
if black were white." 

The passing of light through, rather than reflecting off, the plants and 
moth wings reveals a fascinating and sometimes terrifying intricacy of 
veins and netlike structures, which replaces the sense of depth in the film 
with an elaborate lateral complexity, flashing by at the extreme speed of 
almost one natural object to each frame of the three-minute film. The 
original title of this visual lyric, when the film-maker began to construct 
it, had been Dead Spring. True to that original but inferior title the film 
incarnates the sense of the indomitable division between consciousness and 
nature, which was taking a narrative form at the same time in Brakhage's 
epic, Dog Star Man. 

The structure of Mothlight, as the film-maker observes in a remarkable 
letter to Robert Kelly printed in "Respond Dance," the final chapter of 
Metaphors on Vision, is built around three "round-dances" and a coda. 
Three times the materials of the moths and plants are introduced on the 
screen, gain speed as if moving into wild flight, and move toward calm 
and separation; then in the coda a series of bursts of moth wings occurs 
in diminishing power, interspersed with passages of white (the whole film 



is fixed in a matrix of whiteness as the wings and flora seldom fill the 
whole screen). The penultimate burst regains the grandeur of the first in 
the series, but it is a last gasp, and a single wing, after the longest of the 
white passages, ends the film. 

Significantly, in Brakhage's description of his interest in the moth's 
flight, sight, and functioning as oracular events in his life, he attributes to 
the appearance of a moth during the editing of an earlier film a liberation 
from a slump into self-consciousness that stalled his work: 

I was sty-my-eyed sinking into sty-meed in all self possession 
when suddenly Jane appeared holding a small dried plant which 
she put down on the working table, and without a word, left 
me — I soon began working again ... in the midst of attempts to 
work, what must surely have been the year's last moth . . . began 
fluttering about me and along the work table, the wind of its 
wings shifting the plant from time to time and blowing away all 
speculations in my mind as to movements of dead plants and to 
enable me to continue working. 14 

For Brakhage, extreme self-consciousness and the seduction of natural ob- 
jects are equivalents (which can, as in the present case, cancel each other) 
since they both inhibit the working process, which is his ultimate value. 

In "Respond Dance," Brakhage, adapting Robert Duncan's view of 
the poet's role as a medium working for the Poet to the situation of the 
film-maker, writes: 

TERNAL form. My most active part in this process is to in- 
crease all my sensibilities (so that all films arise out of some to- 
tal area of being or full life) and, at the given moment of 
possible creation to act only out of necessity. In other words, I 
am principally concerned with revelation. My sensibilities are art- 
oriented to the extent that revelation takes place, naturally, 
within the given historical context of specifically Western aes- 
thetics. If my sensibilities were otherwise oriented, revelation 
would take an other external form — perhaps a purely personal 
one. As most of what is revealed, thru my given sensibilities 
clarifies itself in relationship to previous (and future, possible) 
works of art, I offer the given external form when completed 
for public viewing. As you should very well know, even when I 
lecture at showing of past Brakhage films I emphasize the fact 
that I am not artist except when involved in the creative process 
and that I speak as viewer of my own (no — damn that "my 
own" which is just what I'm trying, do try in all lectures, let- 
ters, self-senses-of, etc., to weed out) — I speak (when speaking, 



writing, well — that, is with respect to deep considerations) as 
viewer of The Work (not of . . . but By-Way-Of Art), and I 
speak specifically to the point of What has been revealed to me 
and, by way of describing the work-process, what I, as artist- 
viewer, understand of Revelation — that is: how to be revealed 
and how to be revealed to (or 2, step 2 and/or — the viewing 
process.) 15 

What he reveals in the introductory interview, as the critic and expli- 
cator of his own work, is always illuminating and usually pertinent to our 
analysis of his films. But in the case of Cat's Cradle, the film does not 
support his expression of its theme. Brakhage recounts there how shortly 
after his marriage he took his wife to visit two friends, James Tenney and 
Carolee Schneemann, whom he had filmed in Loving. The film he shot of 
that encounter was to contain his observations on the tensions, identifi- 
cations, and jealousies that it engendered. Yet the film itself effaces psy- 
chology and develops through its lightning montage of flat surfaces and 
gestures in virtually two-dimensional space an almost cubistic suggestion 
of the three-dimensional arena in which the four characters and one cat 
might interact, if only the furious pace of editing could be retarded and 
the synecdochic framing expanded. 

The camera does not move. Like the montage at the opening of Win- 
dow Water Baby Moving, the cutting at times follows an imaginary path 
of sunlight from the back of the cat, to a bedspread, to a bowl of flowers, 
to the opening of a door, etc. When there is movement within the frame, 
its direction and pace influence how it is cut. The various gestures of the 
film (a bare foot on the bedspread, Brakhage walking while buttoning his 
shirt, Carolee Schneemann painting and washing dishes, Tenney writing, 
Jane undressing) never seem complete; they are spread out evenly and often 
seen upside-down or simultaneously through the whole film without se- 
quence or internal development. For the most part these activities are 
framed to obscure the identity of the performer so that together with the 
speed of the editing they tend to fuse the two men and two women together 
and even to create one androgynous being out of all four. 

Floral wallpaper, an embroidered pillow, an amber bottle, and the 
cat's fur mix freely with the human gestures and with recurrent flashes of 
white leader and emphasize the flatness of the images. Offscreen looks of 
the human figures and changes of angle in a single subject establish axes 
of geometrical positioning, but with the rapidity of shot changes these axes 
spin wildly and eccentrically. The 700 shots in this five-minute film (re- 
member there were some 3000 in the fifty minutes of the highly-edited 
Twice a Man) vary from two frames (1/12 of a second) to 48 (two seconds) 
with by far the greater number of images under half a second screen time. 

Cat's Cradle suggests stasis through, and despite, the speed of the col- 
liding shots. In Pasht, made six years later, he again used a very rapid 
montage (one frame to sixty frame shots — mostly five or six frames), in a 



five-minute film for an even more stationary impression. In his blurb for 
the film in the catalogue of the Film-Makers' Cooperative, Brakhage tells 
us that the title comes from the name of a pet cat, named for the Egyptian 
goddess ruling cats. He shot the film while she was giving birth and edited 
it after her death. Without this guide the viewer would not know specifi- 
cally what is happening in the film. It begins in black and soon shows a 
red furry image in the center of the screen — edgeless, undefined, and not 
filling the entire screen rectangle. Bits of black leader intercut with it make 
the image flicker like hot coals. The movement within frame is slight, ex- 
cept for fragmentary glimpses of the discontinuous twisting of the fur by 
an anamorphic lens. The montage unites tiny bits of very similar images. 
Sometimes a moving orange spot of light appears, reminding the viewer 
of the cat in Cat's Cradle. 

The whole screen seems to pulse with variations in the light intensity 
of the image, the degree of movement, the clarity of the fur, the time of a 
shot on the screen, and the number of elements in bursts-of-image between 
passages of blackness. A typical phrase has one black frame followed by 
six of soft focused fur, another frame of black, three of focused fur, six 
of blurred fur ending in a flash of light, another black, one bright orange, 
and three black. As the film nears its end the bursts become longer and 
the hairs of fur more clearly focused, and at times larger images fill the 
borders of the screen, almost identifiable as very close views or anamorphic 
views of a cat scratching or giving birth. 

Pasht presents a vision of an organism simultaneously seeming to die 
and regenerate. It is clearly animal but liberated from the specifics of spe- 
cies and character. The difference in rhythm between Pasht and the lyrical 
films of 1959 and i960 indicates the general, but not absolute, shift in the 
film-maker's approach to the lyrical film before and after the making of 
Dog Star Man. Pasht and many of the films that follow it substitute an 
organic pulse for the earlier counterpoint and micro-rhythmic dynamics. 
In this later phase of the lyrical form, Brakhage seems to want to still the 
filmic image and catch the shimmering vibrations of the forces that inspire 
and terrify him. 

Fire of Waters operates within a structure similar to that of Pasht. 
Here the matrix is gray instead of black, and its black-and-white images 
are grainy and thin, with an ascetic denial of visual contrast. The film 
begins with static lights at night — for again the camera does not move — 
and flares toward whiteness. The image seems to wait, while a house light 
or a streetlamp sits on the depthless surface of the screen, for single-frame 
occurrences of summer lightning. With these flashes the silhouettes of trees, 
house, and clouds appear. At times only a portion of the screen is dimly 
lit by the lightning, and at other times the whole screen flashes. The du- 
ration of the illuminations varies from one to five frames toward the mid- 
dle of the film, and when the lightning explosion extends beyond the single 
frame, there is always a slight variation in each of the frames in which it 

i 7 8 


The change of streetlamps, car light, or house lights prefigures each 
new flash and makes the viewer expectant. A flare introduces a scene of 
suburban houses in the quivering daylight of a gray sky. Three slow tones 
are heard on the soundtrack, which had previously been silent. When the 
film reverts to night, the lightning flashes are edited to follow one another 
more quickly than in the first section. A final change to daylight accom- 
panies the sound of fast panting. 

In a previously unpublished interview with the author, Brakhage de- 
scribes his thematic and formal concerns in making this film: 

Fire of Waters, as its title suggests, is inspired by a little post- 
card that Robert Kelly sent me when we were searching into the 
concerns of Being, Matter and Subject Matter, and Source. He 
sent a card which cut through all my German windiness about 
it. It said, "The truth of the matter is this, that man lives in a 
fire of waters and will live eternally in the first taste." That 
haunted me. First I couldn't make any sense out of it at all, 
other than that "fire of waters" would refer to cells, in that the 
body is mostly water and is firing constantly to keep itself go- 

That summer we were living at that abandoned theater. I 
had got a lot of lightning and streetlights on black-and-white 
film. I took a lot of daytime shots of the houses that surrounded 
us. There seemed to be an awful foreboding about that kind of 
neighborhood in which we were then living, which was a typical 
suburban neighborhood. I remember referring to it and saying 
"These houses look like inverted bomb craters." I had a sense of 
imminent disaster which I always seem to get more mysteriously 
and in a more sinister way in an American suburban area than I 
do even in New York City. 

When I finally came to edit that, which was just before 
Christmas '64, I was inspired by Kelly's card and I had the sense 
that the opening shot would come out of pure white leader and 
then be a streetlight blinking. The blink of the streetlight would 
set a rhythm which then I could repeat in flashes of both other 
streetlights and of lightning flashes, and that blink would be 
source for the whole rhythm structure of the film. I wanted to 
see how far I could depart from that rhythm exactly and still re- 
tain that rhythm as source. 

Then, as the whole concept deepened, I showed the actual 
source of those night house lights and house shadows by show- 
ing the daylight scenes of them. Then I could throw it back into 
the night with a build-up of the night structure, and then finally 
end with that one single house that dominated most of my con- 
cerns, directly across the street from us. 



Then I felt the need for sound. For years I had imposed the 
discipline on myself that if ever a single sound was needed any- 
where on a track to go with an image I would put that sound in 
even if no other sound was needed in the whole film. That per- 
mitted me when I felt the need of slowed-down bird sounds 
(that is a bird's cry slowed down so that it became like a west- 
ern musical instrument), to put it in where I felt it was needed. 
Then that caused me to feel the need of a sound of wind rising 
to a certain pitch at the very beginning. At the end then the 
speeded-up sound of Jane giving birth to Myrenna occurs on 
two levels in the last shot of the house. It definitely sounds like 
a dog in somebody's backyard in the drama sense of that scene, 
yelping in pain. It does actually carry the sense of a terror be- 
yond that. That's how the sound came into it and balanced 
out. 16 

Brakhage had made one other sound film since Anticipation of the 
Night. Blue Moses (1962) uses strategies from the lyrical film without itself 
being a meditation firmly postulated in the eye of the film-maker. For this 
one time in his career he employed synchronous speech. The existence of 
this film within Brakhage's filmography is very curious; there is nothing 
else like it in his work. It explicitly postulates an epistemological principle: 
that there can be no cinematic image without a film-maker to take it and 
that the presence, or even the existence, of the film-maker transforms what 
he films. Formally, Blue Moses anticipates the participatory film that calls 
upon or addresses itself directly to the audience, a form that emerged in 
the early 1970s on the tail of the structural film. We have encountered its 
embryonic manifestation already in Anger's Invocation of My Demon 

The single actor of Blue Moses hollers to the audience when he first 
appears from his cave. He is the merchant of metaphysical fear Melville 
knew as "The Lightning Rod Man." He tries to scare us by proposing to 
quiet our fears: "Don't be afraid. We're not alone. There's the cameraman 
. . . or was . . . once." Then in an elliptical way he informs us of what we 
should be afraid of. He points to mysterious tracks, in a desolate place, 
left by a man who must have been running. That narrative hint, recurring 
throughout the film, hovers on the edge of parody of the devices used in 
novels and films to draw us into illusionism and suspense. In a fugal struc- 
ture of leap-frogging episodes interrupted by dissolves to the same actor 
in different costumes, Brakhage lets his actor assume different guises from 
the history of acting (a classical Greek mask is painted on his face, in robes 
he strikes "Shakespearean" postures), and his language, usually that of the 
confidence man, veers to sing-song and melodrama. 

The leap-frogging counterpoint of scenes at the beginning of the film 
is recapitulated in superimposition, both of picture and sound, near the 


end. The actor pulls off a false beard and, in a Pirandelloistic cliche, reveals 
himself to the audience. "Look," he says, "this is ridiculous. I'm an actor. 
You see what I mean? . . . You're my audience, my captive audience. I'm 
your entertainment, your player. This whole film is about us." In the 
course of the speech, the superimposition becomes footage from earlier in 
the film, projected over his chest. When he turns his back to the projector, 
the film images cease, and he is framed in a white rectangle of the projector 
operating without film. 

In the middle of his speech in front of the interior film screen he repeats 
his consolation: "But don't be afraid. There's a film-maker behind every 
scene, in back of every word I speak, behind you, too, so to speak." When 
the camera suddenly swings around into the darkness, glimpsing the hand 
signals of the director, he adds, as if a spectator had turned his head to 
the projection booth: "No. Don't turn around. It's useless." It is at this 
point that he himself turns toward his screen and the images change to 
pure white light on his body. 

Blue Moses ends as it began with a series of dissolves of the protag- 
onist returning to his cave and gesturing ceremonially. In its form and 
substance Blue Moses attacks the dramatic film as an untenable conven- 
tion. Brakhage temporarily accepts the principles of the realists of film 
theory who argue that cinema arises from the interaction of the artist with 
exterior reality in front of the camera. But he rebuts them with a dem- 
onstration of how fragile their sense of exterior reality is. At one point the 
actor of Blue Moses gestures to the sun and cries, "an eclipse," at which 
point an obvious, messy splice throws the image into blackness, and he 
adds, "manufactured, but not yet patented, for your pleasure." Blue Moses 
is a negative polemic, an attack on the modified Realism of the European 
cinema of the early sixties (Godard, Resnais, Fellini, Antonioni, etc.). In 
its place he proposed the investigation of the consciousness confronting 
(and constructing) external nature in the form of the lyrical film. 17 

Of the many film-makers of the sixties working in the lyrical mode 
after Brakhage's initial work, Bruce Baillie has had the surest voice of his 
own. 18 In his lyrical films, Baillie turns from the uneasy inwardness of 
Brakhage's work to a problematic study of the heroic. Mr. Hayasbi (1961), 
Have You Thought of Talking to the Director? (1962), A Hurrah for Sol- 
diers (1962-1963), and To Parsifal (1963) prepared the ground for his 
major extended lyrics, Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964) and Quixote 
(1965, revised 1967). The first of these films was made as a newsreel ad- 
vertisement to be shown at Baillie's film society, Canyon Cinema, in the 
second year of its existence. It shows a Japanese gardener, Mr. Hayashi, 
performing his daily tasks in a few black and white shots. The form is 
intentionally brief, minor, and occasional; although there is no metaphor 
or conflict of images, it reminds one of the aspiration first voiced by Maya 
Deren and later echoed by Brakhage to create a cinematic haiku. The plas- 
tic and formal tradition indigenous to San Francisco, the center of Baillie's 
activity, owes something to Eastern and specifically Japanese, aesthetics. 


The Asian "saint" in a fusion of Zen, Tao, and Confucian traditions is 
the first of the heroes proposed by Baillie's cinema. The second, Parsifal, 
logically prefigures the first; his quest seeks the reconciliation of nature 
and mind that makes the Asian saint possible. 

In Mass and Quixote he subtly blends glimpses of the heroic personae 
with despairing reflections on violence and ecological disaster. In the ear- 
lier films those poles were explored in separate and much weaker works. 
Have You Thought of Talking to the Director? casually articulates an im- 
age of sexual loss and paranoia by combining an interview-like monologue 
about girlfriends in a moving car and on the streets of a small California 
town with a frame story derived from the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; 
that is, Baillie, repeatedly cuts from the speaker to him sitting silently in 
the corridor of a hospital, and the sinister doctor who whispers near him 
appears — no longer as a doctor — at significant points in the events outside 
the hospital. In A Hurrah for Soldiers Baillie naively attempted to illumi- 
nate an elliptical and rhythmically edited scene of imagined violence — a 
man attacked by a gang of women — with photographs of actual violence 
from newspaper. He is more successful in the mixing of sounds in this film 
than in the cutting of images. In his major lyrical films he extended his 
natural talent for sound fusion to a textured visual surface which uses 
superimposition and often mixtures of negative and positive black-and- 
white with color, in a rhetoric of slow transformations. His notes for Mass 
give a clear picture of its structure: 

A film Mass, dedicated to that which is vigorous, intelligent, 
lovely, the-best-in-Man; that which work suggests is nearly 

Brief guide to the structure of the film: 

introit: A long, lightly exposed section composed in the cam- 

kyrie: A motorcyclist crossing the San Francisco Bay Bridge ac- 
companied by the sound of the Gregorian Chant. The epistle 
is in several sections. In this central part, the film becomes grad- 
ually more outrageous, the material being either television or the 
movies, photographed directly from the screen. The sounds of 
the "mass" rise and fall throughout the epistle, 
gloria: The sound of a siren and a short sequence with a '33 
Cadillac proceeding over the Bay Bridge and disappearing into a 

The final section of the communion begins with the of- 
fertory in a procession of lights and figures in the second 

The anonymous figure from the introduction is discovered 
again, dead on the pavement. The touring car arrives, with the 
celebrants; the body is consecrated and taken away past an in- 
different, isolated people accompanied by the final chant. 19 


At the very beginning he shows a man struggling and dying on a city 
street at night, ignored by passers-by as if he were a drunk collapsed in 
the street. In the subsequent weaving of moving camera shots, in counter- 
pointed superimpositions of factories, expanses of prefabricated houses, 
traffic, parades, and markets, all complemented by a soundtrack that 
blends Gregorian chant with street noises in shifting degrees of priority, 
the viewer tends to forget the dying man or to see him as the forecast of 
the section of the film that enjambs bits of war films with advertisements 
shot directly off a television without kinescopic rectification so that the 
images continually show bands and jump. 

Contrasted to the images of waste and violence, a motorcyclist appears 
in the traffic and Baillie follows him, shooting from a moving car for a 
long time. He is the tentative vehicle of the heroic in this film. But when 
he too disappears in the welter of superimposition, we do not expect his 
return. Instead the movement shifts to the grill of a 1933 Cadillac as it 
cruises the highway. As the second part of the film circles back on itself, 
the Cadillac turns out to be the ambulance/hearse which brings doctors to 
the man on the street and which carries away his dead body. Then when 
it reenters the highway, Baillie again shifts the emphasis to the motorcy- 
clist, whose second disappearance concludes the film. 

Two images demonstrate the ironic pessimism with which Baillie views 
the American landscape at the center of the film. Over the sprawl of iden- 
tical prefabricated houses he prints the words of Black Elk: "Behold, a 
good nation walking in a sacred manner in a good land!" Then he pans 
to an American flag waving on a tall pole in the distance. By changing the 
focus without cutting from the shot, he brings to view a previously unseen 
barbed wire fence between the camera and the flag. "The Mass is tradi- 
tionally a celebration of Life," he wrote in the Film-Makers' Cooperative 
catalogue, "thus the contradiction between the form of the Mass and the 
theme of Death. The dedication is to the religious people who were de- 
stroyed by the civilization which evolved the Mass." 

In To Parsifal Baillie began to elaborate his equivocal relationship to 
technology by employing the train both as a symbol of the waste land and 
the heroic thrust of the Grail quester. The motorcyclist of Mass possesses 
some of that ambivalence. But it is in Quixote that Baillie utilizes the 
tension between the heroics and the blindness of technology as a generative 
principle for the organization of the whole film. He told Richard White- 

Quixote was my last western-hero form. I summarized a lot 
of things. I pretty much emphasized the picture of an American 
as a conquistador. A conquering man. For example, up in Mon- 
tana there's a bridge being put up, driving straight through the 
mountains, and it was half made when I got there. 

They're chopping their way right through. And, to me, that 
was the best explanation of what western man was up to. 20 


In many ways Quixote restates the structural principles of Mass with 
increased irony and ambiguity. For instance, the tentative protagonist of 
the earlier film, the motorcyclist who appears near the beginning and the 
end, becomes a flying man, a movie version of Superman, at both ends of 
the later film. Despite his sophistication, Baillie remains an innocent; the 
whole of his cinema exhibits an alternation between two irreconcilable 
themes: the sheer beauty of the phenomenal world (few films are as grace- 
ful to the eye as his, few are as sure of their colors) and the utter despair 
of forgotten men. It is in Quixote alone that these two themes emerge into 
a dialectical form, an antithesis of grace and disgrace. 

The incessant forward movement of Mass leads to the meandering 
journey, of which Quixote is the diary, of a film-maker in search of a hero 
who can be his mediator without irony. But the series of agents he finds 
cannot sustain that burden: they are tired Indians in a luncheonette, an 
old farmer, a prizefighter reduced to Bowery life, a naked woman, the 
artificial Superman, and even animals (a turtle, horses). In their impotence, 
the lyrical film-maker, himself a Quixotic observer without Anger's con- 
fidence that the cinema is a magical weapon, becomes the hero of his own 
film as he descends through a nostalgia for the lost Indian civilizations 
(manifested in the intercutting of contemporary chiefs with turn-of-the- 
century photographs of the tribes) to a vision of New York streets meshed 
with a collage of old films and footage of the war in Vietnam. 

With Baillie we return to an aspect of the visionary film-maker sus- 
pended since our discussion of Maya Deren: his role as a champion of 
reform for the film-makers' plight. In 1961 he founded Canyon Cinema, 
the first permanent showcase for the avant-garde film in the San Francisco 
area since the collapse of Art in Cinema more than a decade earlier. The 
next year it moved from the town of Canyon, still keeping the name, to 
Berkeley and initiated a newspaper, The Canyon Cinema News. Shortly 
afterward he founded the Canyon Cinema Cooperative, following the ex- 
ample of Jonas Mekas and the original Film-Makers' Cooperative in New 
York. Although Baillie soon retried as the chief administrator of the 
Canyon Cinema functions, they continued much in the spirit in which they 
were founded. The visionary inspiration which informs the work of the 
American avant-garde film-maker has in many instances spread to the cre- 
ation of his institutions. 

Stan Brakhage, too, has been influential in the formation and pro- 
motion of organizations to benefit the film-maker. He was one of the 
founding members of Mekas' Cooperative, and in its early years he acted 
as an informal ambassador, uniting factions in different parts of the coun- 
try whom he encountered in his lecture tours. One of his major concerns 
has been the encouragement of private libraries of 8mm and 16mm films. 
But he has been uncomfortable in his alliances with the community of 
film-makers and has on several occasions withdrawn his films from co- 
operatives and attacked them. His motives have been for the most part 
aesthetic, not economic; and within the politics of aesthetics he has fought, 


with all the polemical means at his disposal, tendencies he felt were con- 
trary to the making and reception of films as revelation. Repeatedly he has 
invoked the myth of Faust in his periodic attacks on other film-makers 
and ideas, reserving for himself a Prometheanism, wherein the commitment 
to aesthetic perfection and prophetic revelation triumphs over seduction. 
His repeated reconciliations with film-makers' institutions are usually at- 
tended by confessions that his dramatic response was personally essential 
to the rooting out of drama from his films. Markopoulos, too, and in spite 
of his enthusiastic appraisal of the inspired work of the cooperatives, with- 
drew, returned, and then withdrew his films again without the public his- 
trionics of Brakhage. 

But Baillie has eschewed the polemical struggle in the ten years he has 
been making films. His rare interviews reflect his pacific personality, gen- 
erosity, and disinterest in theory. A persistent struggle with serious hepa- 
titis since 1967 has circumscribed his activities and generated a meditation 
on death in his longest film so far, Quick Billy (1971), which will be 
discussed in the next chapter. 

In the end, the argument between consciousness and nature is as cru- 
cial to Baillie's cinema as it is to Brakhage's. But it is problematic because 
the weight of the dialogue seems to rest outside of the film, especially in 
the prolific stream of films from the late sixties — Tung (1966), Castro 
Street (1966), All My Life (1966), Still Life (1966), and Valentin de las 
Sierras (1967). In these, the eye of the film-maker quiets his mind with 
images of reconciliation; the dialectics of cinematic thought become calm 
in the filming of the privileged moment of reconciliation. In an interview 
with Richard Corliss, he describes his achievement as a film-maker and 
the fundamental shortcoming of that achievement: 

Now, I can answer a little bit just for myself, as having been 
a film artist. I always felt that I brought as much truth out of 
the environment as I could, but I'm tired of coming out of. . . . I 
want everybody really lost, and I want us all to be at home 
there. Something like that. Actually I am not interested in that, 
but I mean that's what you could do. Lots of people would like 
it. I have to say finally what I am interested in, like Socrates: 
peace . . . rest . . . nothing. 21 

Baillie's two versions of the structural film, coinciding with the general 
emergence of that form, draw upon his lyrical films and point toward the 
consecration of the privileged moment. By replacing a form which has 
internal evolution with a monomorphic shape and by affirming the priority 
of the mechanics of the tools over the eye of the film-maker, the structural 
film terminates the dialectics of the lyrical and mythopoeic forms. Baillie 
comes to it in the apparent hope of subduing the reflective ego and, at 
least tentatively, exploring deep space and unquestioned natural objects. 
In All My Life (1966) he pans along a fence lined with rose bushes. Then 


I8 5 

in the same slow movement of the unstopping camera, he switches from 
the horizontal to the vertical, rising above the fence into the sky, resting 
in a composition of two telephone lines trisecting the blue field. The move- 
ment lasts as long as it takes Ella Fitzgerald to sing "All My Life" on the 
soundtrack. 22 Its complement, Still Life (1966), fixes an interior view with 
an unmoving camera. The voices on its soundtrack suggest that the dim 
figures by the far window are looking at a series of photographs of shrines 
devoted to Ramakrishna. Baillie refers to this in the Film-Makers' Coop- 
erative catalogue as "A film on efforts toward a new American religion." 

Castro Street returns to the lyrical form with a renewed lushness of 
texture and color. His note for it is typically gnomic and tantalizing in its 
guarded hints about his working process: 

Inspired by a lesson from Erik Satie; a film in the form of a 
street — Castro Street running by the Standard Oil Refinery in 
Richmond, California . . . switch engines on one side and refin- 
ery tanks, stacks and buildings on the other — the street and film, 
ending at a red lumber company. All visual and sound elements 
from the street, progressing from the beginning to the end of the 
street, one side is black-and-white (secondary), and one side is 
color — like male and female elements. The emergence of a long 

Bruce Baillie's Castro Street: "the image of Consciousness." 



switch-engine shot (black-and-white solo) is to the film-maker 
the essential of consciousness. 23 

A different note subtitles it "The Coming of Consciousness." 

The film begins slowly and gradually changes pace several times. Its 
fusion of black-and-white negative with color, often moving in opposite 
directions, recalls Brakhage's micro -rhythms. The superimposition tends to 
destroy depth and to reduce foreground and background to two hovering 
planes, one slightly in front of the other. The opening movement, accom- 
panied by the sound of a train in slow motion, occurs on the back plane. 
An iris isolates a smokestack, then slowly wanders on the screen, drifting 
toward the upper right corner. The first dynamic image is of a negative, 
high-contrast power line moving in the superimposition. 

Baillie occasionally uses slightly distorted images of the trains and the 
railroad yard with prismatic colors around the border of distinct shapes. 
He also uses images which were recorded by an improperly threaded cam- 
era so that they appear to jump or waver up and down on the screen. A 
ghost image of a man and the numbers from the side of a boxcar jump in 
this way on the foreground layer early in the film. Soon afterward part of 
the screen clears to show a red filament inside a tube; for Baillie not only 
uses superimpositions but soft masking devices so that parts of the screen 
will be single-layered, while the rest is double, or will contain a third 
element which appears on neither one of the superimposition layers, as if 
melted into the picture. 

As the trains move faster, the pace of the film changes. The smokestack 
in the iris returns, now red-filtered and occupying the center of the screen. 
Another central iris replaces it, looking out on violets in a yellow field; 
slowly an old Southern Pacific engine pulls into the iris beyond the violets, 
recalling the later movements of To Parsifal. A yellow car crosses almost 
pure white negative cars. 

At this point in the film we hear whistles, muted voices, and the tin- 
kling of a piano. A curtain is drawn open to show the blue of the sky, 
and then it closes, blending immediately into the superimpositions, which 
become progressively anamorphic. To the sound of clangs, negative and 
color trains move in opposite directions across the screen, ending in the 
dominance of a silhouetted negative engine with a man in it, slowly 
crossing the field of vision. This is the image Baillie refers to as the "es- 
sential of consciousness." 

Just before the film ends another negative figure takes over the film. 
The camera follows the blazing white pants of a walking workman, then 
shows his polka-dot shirt. His appearance crowns the passing negative of 
the engine and its conductor. Then a red, dome-like barn appears while a 
sign, saying "Castro Street," pointing in the direction opposite to that of 
the camera, marks the film's conclusion. 


I8 7 

Both Brakhage and Baillie push in their later lyrical films toward cin- 
ematic visions of impersonal or unqualified consciousness. In films such as 
Pasbt, Fire of Waters, and Castro Street they succeed in momentarily dis- 
engaging the self from vision. But that came only after they had invented 
and pursued a form that could articulate that complex relation for the first 
time in cinema. 

This page intentionally left blank 

ajor Mythopoeia 


achievements of Brakhage's art since the 
spectacular series of lyrical films in the late 
1950s and early 1960s have been three 
long or serial films, Dog Star Man (or in 
its expanded form, The Art of Vision), 
Songs, and Scenes from Under Childhood 
(itself the first part of a projected autobi- 
ography, The Book of the Film). Likewise 
Baillie had proceeded from lyric to epic 
with the making of Quick Billy, which 
holds a position in the evolution of his 
work comparable to that of Dog Star Man 
in Brakhage's. 

The writing of Metaphors on Vision 
coincided with the shooting and editing 
of most of Dog Star Man. Brakhage seems 
to have started both around i960. The 
book was published at the very beginning 
of 1964; the five-part film was completed 
by the end of that year and had its first 
screenings in 1965. Here more than at 
any other point in Brakhage's career his 
aesthetics throw light on the film. Never- 
theless the critic must be careful not to 
let the film-maker's glosses completely 
dominate his viewing of the film. An over- 



subscription to Brakhage's paraphrases has blinded at least two published 
interpretations of the film to some of its complications. 1 

Dog Star Man elaborates in mythic, almost systematic terms, the 
worldview of the lyrical films. More than any other work of the American 
avant-garde film, it stations itself within the rhetoric of Romanticism, de- 
scribing the birth of consciousness, the cycle of the seasons, man's struggle 
with nature, and sexual balance in the visual evocation of a fallen titan 
bearing the cosmic name of the Dog Star Man. 

From two interviews, one published as the introduction to Metaphors 
on Vision and another unpublished one now in the Anthology Film Ar- 
chives library, we can construct his argument for Dog Star Man: 

The man climbs the mountain out of winter and night into 
the dawn, up through spring and early morning to midsummer 
and high noon, to where he chops down the tree. . . . There's a 
Fall — and the fall back to somewhere, midwinter. 

I thought of Dog Star Man as seasonally structured that 
way; but also while it encompasses a year and the history of 
man in terms of image material (e.g. trees become architecture 
for a whole history of religious monuments or violence becomes 
the development of war), I thought it should be contained 
within a single day. 

I wanted Prelude to be a created dream for the work that 
follows rather than Surrealism which takes its inspiration from 
dream; I stayed close to the practical use of dream material. . . . 
One thing I knew for sure (from my own dreaming) was that 
what one dreams just before waking structures the following 
day. . . . Since Prelude was based on dream vision as I remem- 
bered it, it had to include "closed-eye vision." 

In the tradition of Ezra Pound's Vorticism, Part One is a 
Noh drama, the exploration in minute detail of a single action 
and all its ramifications. [Brakhage described the basic action of 
this section as "the two steps forward, one step backward" mo- 
tion of the hero, which he related to the forward-backward mo- 
tion of blood in the capillary system, the final image of that 

The heart had stopped in Part One, and, while we see an 
increasingly black and white image [of the man] that climbs up 
the mountain, there is a negative image of the Dog Star Man 
that is absolutely fallen at that instant. 

I had no idea what would happen in Part Two, except that 
it would be in some sense autobiographical; but I knew that the 
heart must start again in Part Three; and that it would be a sex- 
ual daydream, or that level of yearning, that would start the 
heart again. 



The moment at which the man is seen both climbing and 
fallen is recapitulated in a way at the beginning of Part Two. 
... I reintroduced the man climbing both in negative and posi- 
tive, superimposed. I had some sense that these twin aspects of 
the Dog Star Man could be moving as if in memory. ... I real- 
ized that the man, in his fall and his climb in negative and posi- 
tive, was split asunder and related either to himself as baby 
(those first six weeks ... in which a baby's face goes through a 
transition from that period we call infancy to babyhood; . . . the 
lines of the face fill out what might be called a first mask or a 
personality, a cohesiveness which occurs in the facial structure 
or control of the face over those first six weeks) and/or to his 

The whole idea of the baby's face achieving a solidity, or 
the first period of birth would relate metaphorically to spring, 
the springing into person. ... At the end of Part Two a balance 
is achieved when the images return to the Dog Star Man in his 
fall. It was very important to me, too, that the tripod legs would 
show in the distance so that there is always some sense that this 
is a film-maker being filmed. ... In no sense is it engaging or 
pulling in, precisely because in the plot level of the film the Dog 
Star Man is being engaged with his own childhood by his 

The images return to the Dog Star Man in his fall, in his 
jumps back down the earth, or his imagined fall. He's seen fi- 
nally flat on his back on a rock ledge and the figure of the 
woman is collaged in. 

Part Three has a "His, Her, and Heart" roll. . . . Female im- 
ages are trying to become male and have not succeeded and the 
males are trying to become female and have not succeeded. . . . 
In the "Her" roll you see mounds of moving flesh that separate 
distinguishably into a woman's image, but then become very tor- 
tured by attempts to transform into male. It's very Breugelesque 
in a way; penises replace breast in flashes of images; then a pe- 
nis will jut through the eyes; or male hair will suddenly move 
across the whole scape of the female body. ... At some point 
this ceases and this flesh becomes definitely woman. Then on the 
"His" roll . . . you have the opposite occurring: a male mound 
of flesh which keeps being tortured by a proclivity to female im- 
agery; so that, for instance, the lips are suddenly transformed 
into a vagina. Finally the male form becomes distinct. Then, of 
course, these two dance together as they are superimposed on 
each other; you get this mound of male-female flesh which pulls 
apart variously and superimposes upon itself in these mixtures 
of Breugelesque discoveries, so to speak, or distortions. Finally 



toward the end, the male and female become separate so that 
they can come together. 

Part Four begins with that man on the ledge as we found 
him at the end of Part Two. He rises up and shakes off the sex- 
ual daydream and becomes involved in shaking off every reason 
he might have for chopping that tree. . . . Finally, if looked at 
carefully; there is really no relevant, definite, specific reason 
given for that Dog Star Man to chop the tree as he does at the 
end of Part Four. . . . Finally the whole concept of the woodcut- 
ter gets tossed into the sky. . . . The axe is lifted up and the fig- 
ure cuts to Cassiopeia's chair, which I suppose you can say is 
finally what Dog Star Man sits down into in the sky. . . . The 
whole film flares out in obvious cuts which relate in their burn- 
ing out and changes of subtly colored leader to the beginning of 
the Prelude. 

Brakhage's paraphrase suggests at times a narrative consistency which 
is not apparent in the film, while he omits other obvious connections. Part 
One clearly situates itself in winter, while Part Four begins with images 
of summer and proceeds along an alternation between summer and winter 
until its end. The seasonal system, as Brakhage outlines it, refers to the 
dominant metaphors of the parts, not to their total visual presences. In 
Part Two we see the visual, aural, and haptic reactions of an infant (the 
mediator of spring) and in Part Three the superimposition of naked male 
and female bodies with a beating heart and paint splatter. Part Three is 
an erotic version of the myth of summer's richness. Finally, in Part Four, 
the images of the protagonist literally falling from summer work to winter 
desolation elliptically suggest the transitional season of fall and mimetically 
echo its processes. 

Yet more striking than the problem created by Brakhage's claims for 
the seasonal interpretation of the film is the difference between the actual 
function of Parts Two and Three in the film and in the film-maker's ac- 
count of them. It is true that the heart slows down at the end of Part One 
(but it does not stop) and that it accelerates at the conclusion of Part 
Three. Yet the fallen Dog Star Man of Part One appears vigorously climb- 
ing upward again at the beginning of Part Two, and he is seen both climb- 
ing down and fallen at the end of that section. In fact, the opening and 
concluding climbs distinctly bracket the entire episode of the infant's sen- 
sibilities. Brakhage's reading of the film fails to account for this and sub- 
stitutes in its place a much more obscure connection, that of the heart 
rates. Actually, Part Two and Three have a dialectical relationship to each 
other. They are alternatives or aspects of the divided titan. He postulates 
two forms of privileged vision, the innocent and the orgasmic. In the earlier 
films, as we have seen, Brakhage describes the urgency of the need for 
unschooled vision and for erotic fulfillment, although not in a single film. 
In Loving there is a hint that the former can be born of the latter. With 



the idealization of the infantile and the orgasmic vision goes a severe skep- 
ticism about their adequacy. 

It is at this point that Brakhage's perspective most closely coincides 
with Blake's, who at various moments in his development speaks of four 
realms or states of existence. The first, Beulah, or Innocence, encompasses 
the vision of the child; next Generation, or Experience, defines the adult 
world of titanic sexual frustration and circumscribed erotic fulfillment; 
only the minor appendages, the sexual organs, can unite in Blake's derisive 
vision, while the whole body cries out for a merging of male and female. 
Northrop Frye describes one relation of Innocence to Experience thus: "As 
the child grows up, his conscious mind accepts 'experience,' or reality with- 
out any human shape or meaning, and his childhood innocent vision, 
having nowhere else to go, is driven underground into what we should 
call the subconscious, where it takes an essentially sexual form." 2 The third 
and fourth states are respectively the damned and liberated alternatives to 
the two-fold opposition of innocence and experience. They are Ulro, the 
hell of rationalism, self-absorption, and the domination of nature; and 
Eden, the redeemed unity realm of "The Real Man, the Imagination." 

The image of the child is complex in Brakhage's films. 3 In Anticipation 
of the Night it evokes innocence lost, and the whole film alternates be- 
tween the minor pastoral and the major elegiac. But Dog Star Man aspires 
to the more elaborate mentality of Metaphors on Vision, in which the child 
can be a guide, or a warning, but not an end. On the first page he writes: 

Once vision may have been given — that which seems inher- 
ent in the infant's eye, an eye which reflects the loss of inno- 
cence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye 
which soon learns to classify sights, an eye which mirrors the 
movement of the individual toward death by its increasing ina- 
bility to see. 

But one can never go back, not even in imagination. After 
the loss of innocence only the ultimate of knowledge can bal- 
ance the wobbling pivot. 4 

Behind the puns, name-dropping, and quotations of "Margin Alien" 
rests the idea of an anagogic unity of literary and painterly imagery. In his 
writing and speaking about Dog Star Man there is a tension between the 
argument of the film as he conceived it before shooting, while making it, 
or after it was finished, and the aspects of the film which were revealed to 
him at any of these stages. That the outline changed during the seven years 
between its inception and completion he makes quite clear: 

I always kept the growth of Dog Star Man consonant with 
the changes in our living. I never let an idea impose itself to the 
expense of actually being where I was when I was working on 
the film. I never built, or permitted any ivory tower to get built 



around myself so that I could pursue the original idea of Dog 
Star Man to the expense of keeping that work from changing in 
detail according to the life we were living. 5 

The dialectic between the clarity of design and the vicissitudes of the film- 
making process accounts, in part, for the fact that someone as articulate 
and insightful as Brakhage could be blind to the way in which Part Two 
and Part Three of his film function as paired interludes in the texture of 
the work. In these two sections of almost equal length, which are visually 
distinct from the unity of Prelude, Part One, and Part Four (and different 
from each other), Brakhage, like Blake, describes the sources of renewal 
as an innocence of the senses and erotic union, and, again like Blake, 
suggests that alone each is insufficient and that together they open the still 
very difficult possibility of physical and spiritual resurrection. 

The film is quite specific about that difficulty. After the interludes of 
Parts Two and Three, Part Four, which rushes to its conclusion in five 
minutes of very rapid montage on four layers of film, begins with the fallen 
figure and shows him alternately chopping the tree in the heat of the sum- 
mer sun and wandering, stunned from his fall, through the winter forest 
of Part One. The resolution of the film is not a Blakean liberation into 
Eden and reunion of the imaginative and physical division. Brakhage at 
this point follows the post-Romantic substitution of tautology for libera- 
tion: in their major poems, "Un Coup de Des" and "Notes toward a Su- 
preme Fiction," Mallarme and Stevens triumphantly proclaim the failure 
of the divine within or without man; instead they posit a teleology of 
poetry, and in their wake Brakhage ends his film with a naked affirmation 
of his materials and his mechanics. The images dissolve in projected light; 
the chopping of the tree becomes a metaphor for the splicing of film. The 
apotheosis which Brakhage describes (Dog Star Man assuming Cassio- 
peia's throne in the sky) appears but for a second on the screen and it is 
not the last image of that figure. We see him furiously chopping again, 
which qualifies the stellar image into an idea, a possibility, or a desire. 

Prelude begins with a greenish-gray leader in which faint, shallow, 
shimmering changes of texture gradually appear. Out of this abstract 
chaos images of the sky, snow, fire, and streetlights emerge, sometimes 
slowly and sometimes suddenly. As the eye is teased by the speed and 
shifting focus of these initial elements, it becomes apparent that the mon- 
tage is in the service of a double metaphor; the opening of the film seems 
like both the birth of the universe and the formation of the individual 

The entire film is formed of two superimposed layers of images, but 
at times, such as at the very beginning, there are visual silences on one or 
both layers which either allow one image to assume the presence it would 
on unsuperimposed film or present a vaguely lit visual field on the screen. 
For the most part the superimposition reinforces the basic flatness of the 
images in the Prelude; compositions-in-depth are extremely rare; and often 



Brakhage uses filters, distorting lenses, and a moving camera to create a 
two-dimensional space for his images. Finally there are numerous instances 
of painting or scratching over one or both layers, making the superim- 
position virtually three- or four-fold. 

Early in the film, shots of the bearded, long-haired Dog Star Man are 
glimpsed, along with fragmentary pictures of his dog and the moon. Both 
by superimposition and by montage Brakhage compares the movement of 
clouds with the flow of the blood in magnification. From this point on, a 
rhetoric of metaphor is established, mixing micro-and macro-cosmic im- 
ages with varying degrees of explicitness. 

In the first third of the film, after the initial movement of the con- 
sciousness in which images become more concrete and steadier on the 
screen, an evolving sequence concentrates on shots of the moon through 
a telescope and coronas of the sun, while the figures of the Dog Star Man 
and the woman are introduced as a theme of the development. 

The forms of superimposition are numerous: explicit illusionism (the 
moon moving through the Dog Star Man's head); reduplication; conflicts 
of scale (the sun's corona over a lonely tree); conflicts of depth (the mask- 
like face of the hero over a deep image of a city street at night); color over 
black-and-white (bluish waves on the white moon); one distinct and one 
blurred figure; finally, the superimposition can recur synchronously, two 
images at a time, or, as is more usual, the alternations may be staggered, 
eliding the changes. 

Following the sun and moon sequence with its simultaneous intro- 
duction of the male and female figures, the images settle on earthly sub- 
jects. The mountains and a solitary house appear. In this central scene we 
see much more of the Dog Star Man himself. After an interlude of unrav- 
eling landscapes with expositions of internal organs, especially the heart, 
comes the most concentrated episode in the film: here we see the Dog Star 
Man struggling with the tree — the central act of the film according to the 
film-maker's argument. Significantly, this is the one important episode 
which occurs only in the Prelude. For the rest of the film, that moment of 
confrontation, hinted at here, is the central absent vortex around which 
the actions revolve. Actually Brakhage himself had not known that the 
struggle with the tree would occur only in the Prelude, even after he fin- 
ished that section in 1961. At that time he was talking as if it would be 
elaborated in the summer vision of Part Three, which he had not yet begun 
to structure. 

As we watch the film the tree episode suddenly appears to crystallize 
within seconds, both layers seemingly devoted to its exposition. While he 
shakes the tree as if uprooting it, the camera zooms in again and again on 
the roots, comparing them once to a female crotch, and the immediately 
subsequent chopping of the tree repeats the rhythm of the zoom. Almost 
as suddenly as the scene materialized, it dissolves, and the idea of a family 
emerges, with shots of the Dog Star Man holding a baby and kissing the 
woman, and of her breast-feeding the baby. 


In its final third, Prelude re-establishes its emphasis first on the sun, 
now seen with a tremendous eruption of surface scratches, imitating the 
flares; then the landscape variations reaffirm their presence, including now 
for the first time a burned forest with Greek columns superimposed (ex- 
plicitly postulating the origin of that architectural development). Unlike 
most Brakhage films, including the other sections of Dog Star Man, Prel- 
ude has neither a climactic nor a diminuendo ending. The suddenness of 
the termination may be a concession to the structure of dreams that Brak- 
hage says inspired the form of this film. 

He has described how, after he shot what he thought would be all the 
material for the whole film, he did not know where to begin editing. He 
therefore pulled material willy-nilly from the unorganized rushes and ed- 
ited thirty minutes by chance operations. Looking at this random film, 
Brakhage had a new insight into the material. He then consciously edited 
a parallel strip of film in relation to the original chance roll, as if com- 
menting on it. When at times that method failed to produce a coherent 
vision, he re-edited a section of the randomly composed roll. Knowing this 
method, we better understand how the film moves in waves from closely 
knit forms to vague ones. The opening and the tree section seem to have 
been deliberately structured on both levels. The rising and falling of 
rhythms and clustering and dissolving of scenes must, then, be a function 
of the tension between the chance and conscious layers of the film. 

Although the images of Part One proceed from Prelude, that section 
is formally antithetical to its predecessor. In Prelude Brakhage built a py- 
rotechnic, split-second montage with as much varied material as he could 
force into half an hour. Part One is a tour de force of thematically con- 
structed material stretched out to occupy the same amount of screen time. 
The film organizes itself, not around a nonstop series of metaphors and 
transformations, but in a number of more or less distinct paragraphs (more 
distinct at the beginning and end, less so in the center) punctuated by an 
unusual number of faces for Brakhage. 

Ezra Pound, in his book Gaudier-Brzeska, which Brakhage read and 
identified as a primal source for this part, wrote: 

The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is 
what I can, and must perforce, call a vortex, from which and 
through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing. 6 

I am often asked whether there can be a long imagist or 
vorticist poem. The Japanese, who evolved the hokku, evolved 
also the Nob plays. In the best Noh the whole play may consist 
of one image. I mean it is gathered about one image. Its unity 
consists in one image, enforced by movement and music. 7 

The opening "paragraph" of images seems to both encapsulate and 
reorganize the cosmology of Prelude: the first ten shots, generally much 
longer than any in the former section, gradually define a particular point 



on the earth's surface from the stellar perspective. Three long shots of the 
moon partially obscured by moving clouds open the film. Then two shots 
of clouds alone gradually reveal earthly mountains. Continuing the rhythm 
but not the logic of the sequence, a white flame retreats into a burning 
log, followed by a flash of whiteness, and then by a very slow shot of frost 
disintegrating on a window pane into the shape of a hill or mountain as 
the image fades out. Finally a pulsating corona of the sun shimmers with 
explosions and issues a climactic burst. A very brief flash of clear leader 
punctuates the transition to the next paragraph. 

The effect of the opening is to move from a position beyond the earth 
to a specific terrestrial location and then further to a synecdochic evocation 
of a dwelling (the window), which is also a metaphor for the hilly terrain; 
then back out, even further than the starting point, beyond the moon to 
the sun. Visually, the transitions are all consistent and smooth; colors when 
they appear at all are washed out or subdued. Finally, the entire texture 
of imagery familiar from the Prelude has a new presence and grandeur 
because of its lack of superimposition — there is virtually none in Part 
One — and the slowness of the montage. 

The next grouping of eight shots introduces the Dog Star Man and 
the central action of the section: his arduous climb up a snow-covered 
mountain. For the first time in Dog Star Man the camera is so placed as 
to articulate a depth on the screen. The protagonist climbs up along a 
slanted plane or moves diagonally upward across the screen against a 
background of distant trees and mountains. Again Brakhage's mention of 
Gaudier-Brzeska proves a useful clue: his manifesto, Vortex, quoted in 
Pound's book, begins with "Sculptural energy is the mountain." 8 

Nowhere else in all of Brakhage's cinema is the antagonism of con- 
sciousness to nature so naked as in Part One. The mediator of this agon, 
the Dog Star Man, seems through most of the film to be defeated by the 
cold, the slope, and the tangles of trees in his way. Yet as the film pro- 
gresses, the formal mechanics by which the myth is rendered come more 
and more to invade the metaphysics of the myth. First, without breaking 
the rhythm of the slow fades, the film-maker introduces a shot of the hero 
in greenish negative tossing as if in sleep, suggesting in a most tentative 
way that the climb itself might be a dream. 

The sleeper fades into the arc of the moon, which in turn fades into 
the first section in which subjective camera positions occur, as if through 
the eyes of the climber in his struggle. Now hand-held shots of the sun, 
rushing water, and his hand gripping the snow as he slips are mixed with 
the filtered objective shots of him inching his way up the mountain. Amid 
pans of the landscape and blurs which begin to disrupt the even tempo of 
the opening topology appear images of blood, tissues, and internal or- 
gans — an exposition of what is inside the Dog Star Man. 

As more and more impressionistic camera work is used, Brakhage 
achieves a uniquely cinematic tension. There is a dual realization that a 
particular shot is meant to suggest the Dog Star Man's state of mind or 



what he is seeing, and that the same shot is a camera trick. For instance, 
he sees mountains writhing against the sky. That effect is rendered by the 
flagrantly obvious twisting of an anamorphic lens. 9 The paradoxical ten- 
sion between mechanics and illusion is integral to the structure of the 
section and increases both in the rapidity of instances and the degree of 
obviousness as the film draws to its conclusion. 

The merging of perspectives and the acceleration of metaphor attend 
a flattening of the depth of the images and a general abstraction of all that 
we have seen so far. Pound defined Vorticism as follows: 

Every concept, every emotion presents itself to the vivid con- 
sciousness in some primary form. It belongs to the art of that 
form. ... It is no more ridiculous that a person should receive 
or convey an emotion by an arrangement of shapes, or planes, 
or colours, than that they should receive or convey such emo- 
tion by an arrangement of music notes. 10 

He is approaching the concept of vortex as "the point of maximum energy. 
. . . There is a point at which an artistic impulse is visceral and abstract 
and can be realized in any of the arts." 

The development gradually glides into the finale through a meditation 
on snow: the falling snow becomes the smoke of a forest fire; the hero 
shakes snow off branches as he clears his way with his axe; there is a 
single-frame animation of magnified snow crystals. As this section blends 
into the finale, the precision of the opening groupings returns. There are 
six separate phrasings of images in the finale of Part One. The first begins 
with the protagonist climbing up a slight incline with the dog moving easily 
by his side. As the finale progresses, the man seems to move more and 
more slowly. Appropriately, by the end he has almost stopped. He climbs 
from the other side of the screen at the same incline and then falls. 

The second phrase is only two shots: the Dog Star Man climbing at a 
forty-five-degree angle, and a subjective shot of him falling. Then white- 
ness. The next section is again at a forty-five-degree angle; he falls. But 
the shot is cut short just as his dog begins to move in slow motion. 

The fourth paragraph is the most crucial in the finale. He makes his 
way up a sixty-degree incline. The angle is so steep it poses the question, 
is the mountain just the function of a tilted camera? The next shot, a 
seventy-degree angle, answers affirmatively; for the dog, with magnificent 
grace, easily glides up to his master's side, either defying gravity or dem- 
onstrating the tilt. At this point the terms of the opposition of nature and 
consciousness have been reversed. Although he is still defeated, the Dog 
Star Man is less the victim of nature than of his own or the film-maker's 
imagination. In the fifth grouping, he is lying in the snow, first in positive, 
then in negative. He pulls himself up a ninety-degree cliff as Deren had 
pulled herself from the bench to a table in At Land. Having admitted the 
camera trick with the dog's leap, Brakhage triumphantly exaggerates it. 



Throughout the film, images of the protagonist's interior (heart, blood, 
tissues) and postulations of his "negative" self have become progressively 
more frequent and important. The final shot confirms the shift to an 
interior view: after a very long period of whiteness, the sixth phrase, a 
single shot, appears. It is a microscopic view of blood in a capillary vessel 
with its natural long push forward, short push back, long push forward 

Coming at this point the final shot illustrates the principle Brakhage 
derived from his study of idiotoxic disorders: that there is a physiological 
basis for a nexus of imaginative acts. Thus the rhythm of the blood cor- 
responds to the winter rhythm of the Dog Star Man's struggle with nature. 

In Part Two, at first he climbs downward away from the camera, then 
suddenly forward, up and beyond the camera. After the momentary intro- 
duction of the crying baby, he appears again, now in color, stumbling 
among mountainous rocks. As he gropes past one of them, the camera 
settles upon it. The surface of the rock becomes the first major element of 
the superimposition upon the baby. Texturally, the images of the baby are 
not like anything we have seen so far in this film. Brakhage originally 
intended to make a short film called Meat Jewel about the changes of 
expression in the face of his first son during the initial six weeks of his 
life. He employed the technique of Mothlight in constructing this film — 
that is, he punched holes in the images and carefully inlaid other film 
material, holding the mosaic together with a covering of mylar tape. As 
the child screams in black-and-white, the mouth cavity is replaced by frag- 
ments of colored film. At another point, his sense of hearing is emphasized 
by the insertion of a colored ear in the hole made by cutting out the black- 
and-white original. 

The inspiration of this short film, which became fully incorporated 
into Dog Star Man, had been the film-maker's meticulous observation of 
the changes in facial structure of his first three children, all girls, and a 
poem, "The Human Face," by his friend Michael McClure, from which 
the working title was derived. 

Brakhage zooms in repeatedly on the screaming infant as if moving 
the camera in sympathy with his cries. Later he concentrates on his blink- 
ing eyes and the twitching muscles of his face. As a development of this 
instance, he inlays the colored ear. Lastly, he watches the spasmodic move- 
ments of the feet and hands. The effect of these scenes is to present a 
catalogue of the senses: the birth of sight, of hearing, and the haptic com- 
plex evoked by the kicking feet and waving fists. 

Superimposed upon the collaged images of the baby are a series of flat 
colored images, reminiscent of parts of Prelude, passing very quickly. The 
predominant object is the rock mentioned above. It is presented in a flick- 
ering light which emphasizes its porous texture and suggests the kind of 
pre-verbal cognition possible to the newborn child. Compared to the rock 
are the visual textures of light passing through trees, the sun seen through 
a gauze, rushing blood, and the flesh of a nipple. A striking metaphor 


occurs in the superimposition when the dripping milk from that nipple 
seems to be a tear in the baby's eye. 

The end recalls the beginning, with superimposed solarized scenes of 
the hero climbing and colored shots of him fallen. As he lies on the ledge, 
a yellow, filtered shot of the nude woman is collaged over him, as if she 
were an emanation. The ragged edge of the inlaid material which is su- 
perimposed over him on the matching layer connotes the privileged status 
of the female aspect of his self — or his Emanation in Blakean terms — while 
at the same time reaffirming the illusory nature of the cinematic material. 

The solid-color nude figure is familiar from the Prelude, but it is ac- 
tually with Part Three that we associate these images; for that section, the 
most visually unique of the film, is composed entirely of colored nude 
images of parts of the male and female body superimposed over each other, 
while a heart and hand-painted smears (predominantly blue, green, and 
red) are superimposed over both. The combined effect is of a hermaph- 
roditic sensuousness, rhythmically punctuated by the accelerated splashes 
of paint and beats of the heart. As the section moves to its end, the bodies 
become more abstract, as if the camera were very close to the flesh. The 
color changes become less intense, and thereby the presence of the heart, 
which had been minor at the opening, comes to predominate. 

Here Brakhage's interpretative description of the film fails to illuminate 
what we see. The synchronous superimposition blurs any distinction be- 
tween "a male level becoming female" and "a female level becoming 
male." We see, all at once, a thick interweaving of male and female bodies, 
and that's all. The occasional appearance of a hand fingering the penis 
fails to qualify the whole episode as a mediator's "sexual daydream" with 
any of the precision with which the first three sections were mediated. 

After the alternative interludes of Parts Two and Three, Part Four 
recommences from the action of the frames of Part One and Part Two. 
This is the shortest (five minutes), most intricate, and most elliptical of the 
sections. The four layers of imagery provide an exceptionally dense view- 
ing experience and make it difficult for the analyst to describe the film. 
Nevertheless Brakhage has often reduplicated his images two- and three- 
fold, creating an echo or fugue-like effect, in which one act repeats itself 
in different colors and at slightly asynchronic intervals. 

The film opens with several images, one on top of the other, of the 
Dog Star Man slowly rising from the supine position he was left in at the 
end of Part Two. Horizontal anamorphosis accentuates his outstretched 
body. His gestures, on the different levels, suggest both that he has risen 
from the dead and that he has awakened from a night's sleep. While he is 
still rising on some of the echoing layers, we see the first of many shots of 
him chopping the felled tree. This is clearly a midsummer image, as he 
perspires, wipes his forehead, and continues his vigorous chopping in the 
noon sun. The montage reinforces the notion of resurrection. As the film 
progresses the gesture of chopping will assume a series of different over- 
tones. In fact, the core of Part Four is the transformation of associations 



we have acquired in the first seventy minutes of the film, through unan- 
ticipated juxtapositions and superimpositions. 

One of the major motifs of Part Three is a deep red shot of the full 
female figure, lying down and rising in one continuous movement. Brak- 
hage triple-exposed this movement in the camera so that it appears on one 
layer of film. The woman seems to be rising out of herself in the composite. 
This shot had appeared proleptically in the Prelude and plays a significant 
role in the structure of Part Three. In its first appearance in Part Four, it 
reflects the rise of the hero, a sympathetic movement on the part of his 
female emanation; at the same time it introduces a very quick synecdochic 
narrative of lovemaking, conception, birth, and child-raising. The second 
figure in this sequence, a black-and-white image of bodies making love, 
also appeared in Part One, where it stood out as a rupture in the logic of 
the woodman's drama. There I called attention to an unexplained image 
of childbirth. In Part Four the birth scene, like the brief shots of the red- 
tinted woman, the genitalia, and the lovemaking, is presented very quickly 
and schematically, condensing the erotic and procreative cycle into a few 
seconds, but the visual echoes and metaphors make it perfectly clear what 
we are seeing. The occurrence of the shot of the Dog Star Man chopping 
wood early in this narrative renders that gesture a metaphor for lovemak- 
ing. Then a dynamic eruption of a solar corona, covered with emulsion 
scratches at the moment of the flame burst, symbolizes the orgasm. The 
whole movement from arousal, through copulation, labor, and birth to 
shots of breast-feeding and the dripping nipple which we recognize from 
Parts Two and Three takes less than a minute. 

The narrative of the child continues after a lacuna in which the em- 
phasis changes from sex and birth to topology. From an airplane we look 
down on mountain peaks, while in superimposition the camera zooms in 
on a house. The elaboration of this movement from a panorama of moun- 
tains down to the isolated house gives rise to the most dramatic play of 
depth and flatness in the entire film. 

Originally the topological section of the film had been shot for a sepa- 
rate work, which like Meat Jewel was integrated into Dog Star Man and 
never completed in itself. This time another poet, Robert Kelly, had inspired 
Brakhage to make a landscape film by his use of the neologism "landshape." 
Its amalgamation into Part Four is yet another instance of Brakhage's pro- 
claimed willingness to allow his film to develop as he edits it. 

During the zooming movements on the house, flames appear in brief 
flashes, superimposed. Their locus becomes fixed in the family hearth as 
the virtual line from mountain to house extends inside, where we see the 
child, now several months old, crawling before a fireplace. 

The crawling baby continues the haptic exploration of space initiated 
in the cradle of Part Two, while in superimposition the theme of the moun- 
tain develops. A third element in the combination, the protagonist on the 
mountain, once again compared to the baby as he feels his way around, 
sets up a metaphorical transformation: the fire before the baby evokes the 

Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man: Part 
Two: collage of the infant's scream. 



corona of the sun, which in turn introduces a shot of the Dog Star Man 
looking up to the sun. He seems once again defeated, overpowered by the 
natural. He puts down his axe, and amid flashes of branches, the baby, 
flames, the corona, and white leader, he falls backward in slow motion 
down the mountain. 

Again the film-maker introduces the triple exposure in red of the set- 
tling and rising female nude, now in ironic analogy to the falling hero. 
Then a sunset announces the time of the fall. 

At this point the film tantalizes us with a premature movement toward 
a conclusion. The images dissolve in whiteness. But after a long pause they 
reappear, now in winter with the bruised and stunned hero on his knees 
in pain and groping through the snowy forest. As night comes on and stars 
begin to move quickly across the sky, the summer mid-day images of the 
titan chopping the tree suddenly return and take over the film until its end. 
As he chops there is a brief transition to negative, superimposed over mov- 
ing stars, which in the film-maker's synopsis is the crucial moment of the 
conclusion. Within the rhythm of the film the negative image seems more 
a contingency than a true apotheosis, for the chopping continues after it 
in color. Intercut and superimposed with the regular gestures of the wood- 
man appear splice marks, flares of film stock, and sprocket holes. In its 
final manifestation this often repeated image becomes a metaphor for the 
film-cutter. With the establishment of this connection the film evaporates 
in flares and leader. 

In The Art of Vision, Brakhage presents all the layers of film which 
went into the making of Dog Star Man, individually and in superimposed 
combinations. The following schema shows the order of the film. The lay- 
ers of a given section are identified by letters, so that, for instance, first 
the A layer of Prelude is seen, then the B layer, then the two together or 
the actual Prelude as it appears in Dog Star Man. Thus all of the shorter 
film is enclosed within the longer. In outline the form is: 

Prelude A 25 min. 

Part 1 



25 mm. 
25 min. 
31 min. 

(Part One is the only section without 

Part 3 

Part 2 






































































Originally Brakhage thought he would call this version The Complete 
Dog Star Man, but he changed his mind after showing it to Robert Kelly, 
before it had had a public presentation. Brakhage described his decision 
to alter the title in an unpublished interview with the author: 

Really when I had the sense of being finished with this work 
was when the four and one-half hour work got a title separate 
from the seventy-five minute Dog Star Man composite. That 
happened when I visited the Kellys. We looked at all that mate- 
rial in that order I had given it. The morning after we had seen 
the whole thing, Kelly said at breakfast: "It seems to me you 
ought to read a life of Johann Sebastian Bach." We took an- 
other couple of sips of coffee, and I thought, "Un-humm, well, 
that would be a good thing to do." Then suddenly he came out 
with: "Well, to get that sense of form whereby a whole work 
can exist in the center of another work, or spiral out into pieces 
in another work, as in Baroque music, and that second arrange- 
ment be another piece entirely." I said: "Well, you mean like — 
but that isn't exactly what happens in The Art of the Fugue, but 
something like that." Suddenly he came out with: "Why don't 
you call it The Art of Vision?" Immediately that seemed to me a 
completely perfect thing to do. 11 

He removed all the intermediary titles which announce the distinct 
sections of Dog Star Man. Two things immediately apparent from even a 
glance at the schema are that the present order elongates both the gradual 
concretion of the Prelude and the slow dissolution of Part Four, and that 
proportions of duration are radically altered. Aside from the obvious fac- 
tor of duration, the longer version distinguishes itself by forcing an analytic 
procedure upon the viewer and by establishing a new sense of suspense in 



the combination or breakdown of superimpositions. Since the Prelude be- 
gins with its single layers, its colors are more vivid, not being cancelled 
out by the superimposition layer; its montage is more dynamic, without 
the elisions; and the visual pauses of black or white leader are more prom- 
inent. Since no title indicates the end of roll A and the beginning of B, 
only an experienced viewer can identify the transition. To a first viewer it 
would seem one continuous passage until the superimposition appears, but 
he would be aware of a formal and imagistic echoing of the first half hour 
of the film in the second. The eye, now familiar with the images in isola- 
tion, can discern the metaphors more surely and rapidly when in the third 
reel they arise through superimposition. 

The breakdown of Part Two, unlike Prelude, decreates; in other 
words, the baby is divided from what he sees, suggesting that the object 
of the child's vision is the chaotic imagery of the opening hour and a half. 
The severing of the two layers, with the object of vision first, and the child 
later, intensifies the textural analogies between the flashing rock, the skin 
of the nipple, the internal organs, and the trees. 

In The Art of Vision the yellow nude at the end of the second roll of 
Part Two smoothes the transition to the colored female nudes that begin 
Part Three, which gradually builds up its layers. By itself, the C roll of 
heartbeats and hand-painting has an extraordinary beauty which the su- 
perimpositions diminish. In creating this image Brakhage was again delib- 
erately trying to revitalize an outworn topos, the use of the heart as a 
symbol for love. In The Dead he had attempted the same kind of redemp- 
tion of gravestones and the river as icons of death. The physical reality of 
the heart and its use as an orgasmic rhythm desentimentalize the symbol 
and make its use in this section potent. Finally, the extreme repetition of 
the layers of carnal images becomes itself an erotic metaphor. 

Since Part Four was edited fugally with similar or identical images at 
significant points on all four layers, there can be no mistaking when one 
roll ends and the next begins. They all dissolve into flares, splices, and 
stars and begin again with the rising of the Dog Star Man. The form of 
the whole series reflects the dissolution within each of the variations as 
they reach their end. Watching the final hour and a half of variations on 
Part Four, one is impressed by the idea of a cyclical order, which is im- 
manent in Dog Star Man as a whole. In the insistent repetition of structures 
during these fourteen sequences, the cycle becomes a major concept. 

Dog Star Man and The Art of Vision were made at the height of the 
mythopoeic phase of American avant-garde cinema. Contemporary with 
their conception and presentation were Anger's Scorpio Rising, Marko- 
poulos's Twice a Man, and Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic, which 
I shall discuss in the next chapter. In Brakhage's film, perhaps more in- 
tensely than anywhere else, the strains of Romantic and post-Romantic 
poetry in American art converge with the aesthetics of Abstract Expres- 
sionism. The continuities and overlapping of artistic traditions make it 
difficult to pinpoint the specific vectors involved in the fusion of energies 


that went to make up American avant-garde cinema between 1943 and 
1970, but some points can be made. 

The influx of masters of European modernism into America at the 
time of the Second World War was a catalyst for significant developments 
in both film and painting. 12 Yet those developments were not divorced 
from a native tradition, itself fed by European Romanticism, that can be 
seen in the poetry of Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Stevens, 
Crane, Williams, and Zukofsky. What we see today as the unified aesthetic 
of Abstract Expressionism was earlier a series of fiercely debated questions 
about form, procedure, and meaning. Although Maya Deren, for example, 
disassociates herself from the nonobjective painters of the 1940s and at- 
tacks them in her Anagram, her polemic is infused with a rhetoric they 
shared, and one sees in her last film, The Very Eye of Night, a drift toward 
late Cubist space — a loss of depth, the breakdown of horizontal and ver- 
tical centrality (in this particular case through the rejection of gravitational 
coordinates), and the affirmation of the screen's surface, accompanied by 
an abstraction of the narrative tension which myth had given her earlier 
work. The visual texture and the structural principles of Sidney Peterson's 
cinema were pointing in the same direction when he turned away from 
the medium. 

Markopoulos and Anger, more secure in their Romantic conventions, 
resisted both plastic and structural transformations until the very end of 
the sixties; Broughton strenuously resisted them. It was Brakhage, of all 
the major American avant-garde film-makers, who first embraced the for- 
mal directives and verbal aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. 13 With his 
flying camera and fast cutting, and by covering the surface of the celluloid 
with paint and scratches, Brakhage drove the cinematic image into the 
space of Abstract Expressionism and relegated the conventional depth of 
focus to a function of the artistic will, as if to say "the deep axis will 
appear only when I find it necessary." 

The language of revelation and of process which I have excerpted 
repeatedly from the film-maker's writings and speech recalls the statements 
of several painters. Jackson Pollock's statement on his process coincides 
with Brakhage's sense of artistic possession which recurs throughout Met- 
aphors on Vision. Pollock wrote: 

When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm do- 
ing. It is only after a sort of "get acquainted" period that I see 
what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, 
destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its 
own. I try to let it come through. 14 

The connection between myth and Abstract Expressionism was not a 
simple matter to the artists involved. Mark Rothko said: 

Abstract Expressionist play of positive and negative space: the filed-out image in 
Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man: Part Three. 



If our titles recall the known myths of antiquity, we have 
used them again because they are the eternal symbols upon 
which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. 
They are the symbols of man's primitive fears and motivations, 
no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail 
but never in substance, be they Greek, Aztec, Icelandic, or Egyp- 
tian. And modern psychology finds them still persisting in our 
dreams, our vernacular, and our art, for all the changes in the 
outward conditions of life. 

Our presentation of these myths, however, must be in our 
own terms, which are at once more primitive and more modern 
than the myths themselves — more primitive because we seek the 
primeval and atavistic roots of the idea rather than the classical 
version; more modern than the myths themselves because we 
must redescribe their implications through our own experience. 15 

But Barnett Newman took a contrary position: 

We are reasserting man's natural desire for the exalted, for a 
concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do 
not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated leg- 
end. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and 
which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associa- 
tions with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are 
freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, 
nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you. 16 

Ironically, Rothko gave formalistic titles to his canvases while New- 
man continued to label them with Biblical names ("Abraham," "Jericho"), 
religious associations ("The Stations of the Cross"), and Greek mythology 
("Prometheus Bound"). Pollock vacillated between formalistic and mythic 
titles ("Lucifer," "Moon Woman Cuts the Circle," and "Cut-Out," "Num- 
ber One") just as his art had its formalistic and psychological poles. 

Brakhage is too eager a dialectician to have ignored this debate, both 
in its public and its interior forms. In "Margin Alien" he quotes tough- 
minded Clyfford Still (who persists in labeling his paintings by their dates 
of completion, e.g., "Painting, 1948-D"): 

We are committed to an unqualified act, not illustrating out- 
worn myths or contemporary alibis. One must accept total re- 
sponsibility for what he executes. And the measure of his great- 
ness will be the depth of his insight and courage in realizing his 
own vision. Demands for communication are presumptuous and 
irrelevant. 17 


Even while he was making Dog Star Man Brakhage had inherited the 
Abstract Expressionist's uneasiness with mythical referents and structures, 
as the inclusion of this quotation shows. Yet for Brakhage, dialectical un- 
easiness is a source of strength. Immediately following the references to 
Still and Michael McClure, another antimythologist, Brakhage prints in 
corresponding columns excepts from a statement on poetics by Charles 
Olson and bits of anti-aesthetics from John Cage. And throughout his 
writing Brakhage argues with himself and against the very need to write: 
"It is only as of use as useless." 

The conception of Songs was a dramatic event in Brakhage's life. He 
had come to New York where he showed the completed Parts Two and 
Three of Dog Star Man with a vague idea of joining the New American 
Cinema Exposition then traveling in Europe. While in the city his 16mm 
equipment was stolen from his car. He collected enough money to get 
himself and his family back to Colorado, but he did not have funds for 
new equipment. With the twenty-five dollars paid by his limited insurance 
on the stolen equipment, he discovered he could buy an 8mm camera and 
editing materials. He did so. At least three factors were involved in the 
switch to 8mm, beyond what Brakhage would call the "magical" coinci- 
dence of finding the inexpensive equipment when he went looking to re- 
place what he had lost. 

In the first place, he wanted to get away from the giant form of The 
Art of Vision which had occupied him for seven years. Then, there was a 
definite economic advantage in making 8mm films: materials and labora- 
tory prices were much lower than for i6mm work, and one could not be 
tempted into costly printing work (mixing layers of film, fades, etc.) simply 
because no laboratory undertook to do that in 8mm. All superimposition, 
dissolving, and fading had to be done in the camera. Finally, Brakhage 
saw a polemical advantage in the switch. Not only would his example 
dignify and encourage younger film-makers who could afford to work only 
in 8mm, but he would be able to realize, on a limited scale, a dream he 
had had for years of selling copies of his films, rather than just renting 
them, to people for home viewing. Since the early 1960s he had been 
prophesying a breakthrough for the avant-garde film-maker when films 
would be available for purchase like books, records, and painting repro- 
ductions and could therefore be owned and screened many times and at 

In the beginning Brakhage had no idea that Songs would become a 
single, serial work. Even after making the first eight sections he resisted 
that idea. But by the spring of 1965, with ten Songs finished in a little 
more than a year, he began to speak of the totality of the work in progress: 
"I think there will be more Songs. I do definitely see that they relate to 
each other. That is, practically every Song has images in it that occur in 
some other Song, if not in two or three others. The more remarkable thing 
is that each Song is distinct from each other; that holds them together in 



a very crucial kind of 'tension.' " 18 Within another year he was punning 
on the relation of a Song's number in the series to its subject (XV Song 
Traits, 13rd Psalm Branch); soon after that he was wondering when they 
would end. They did conclude, with a dedication to the film-maker Jerome 
Hill, after thirty Songs, or punning again, American Thirties Song, in 1969. 

Brakhage's capsule descriptions, written for his own sales catalogue, 
describe with varying degrees of directness the subjects of the individual 


Go, little naked and impudent songs, 
Go with a light foot! 
(Or with two light feet, if it please you!) 
Go and dance shamelessly! 
Go with an impertinent frolic! 
Greet the grave and the stodgy, 
Salute them with your thumbs at your noses. 
Ezra Pound, "Salutation the Second." 

song 1 (1964); 4 min. Color. A portrait of a beautiful woman. 

songs 11 & in (1964); 7 min. Color. An envisionation of fire 
and a mind's movement in remembering. 

song iv (1964); 4 min. Color. A round-about three girls play- 
ing with a ball . . . hand-painted over photo image. 

SONG v (1964); 7 min. Color. A child-birth song, ... I think my 
best birth film yet. 

songs vi & vii (1964); 7 min. Color, 
vi: A song of the painted veil — arrived at via moth-death, 
vii: A San Francisco song — portrait of the City of Brakhage 

song viii (1964); 4 min. Color. A sea creatures song — a seeing 
of ocean as creature. 

song ix & x (1965); 10 min. Color. 

ix: a wedding song — of source and substance of marriage, 
x: a sitting around song. 

song xi (1965); 6 min. Color. A black velvet film of fires, win- 
dows, insect life, and a lyre of rain scratches. 

song xii (1965); 6 min. Black and white. Verticals and shad- 
ows — reflections caught in glass traps. 

song xiii (1965); 6 min. Color. A travel song of scenes and 

song xiv (1965); 3 min. Color. A "closed-eye" vision song 

composed of molds, paints, and crystals, 
xv song traits (1965); 75 min. Color. A series of individual 

portraits of friends and family, all interrelated in what might 



be called a branch growing directly from the trunks of songs 
i-xiv. In order of appearance: Robert Kelly, Jane and our dog 
Durin, our boys Bearthm, and Rare, daughter Crystal and the 
canary Cheep Donkey, Robert Creeley and Michael McClure, 
the rest of our girls Myrrena & Neowyn, Angelo diBenedetto, 
Rare, Ed Dorn and his family, Myrrena, Neowyn, and Jonas 
Mekas (to whom the whole of the xvth song is dedicated), 
as well as some few strangers, were the source of these traits 
coming into being — my thanks to all . . . and to all who see 
them clearly. 

song xvi (1965); 8 min. Color. A love song, a flowering of sex 
as in the mind's eye, a joy. 

songs xvii & xviii (1965); 7 min. Color. Cathedral and movie 
house — the ritual memories of religion — and then (in song 
xviii) a portrait of a singular room in the imagination. 

songs xix & xx (1965); 8 min. Color. A dancing song of 
women's rites, and then (song xx) the ritual of light making 
shape/shaping picture. 

songs xxi & xxii (1966); 8 min. Color. Transformation-of-the- 
singular-image was the guiding aesthetic light in the making 
of these two works. 

song xxi works its spell thru closed-eye-vision, whereas song 
xxii was inspired by approximates of "the dot-plane" or 
"grain field" of closed-eye-vision in textured "reality," so to 
speak. You could say that xxi arises out of an inner- and xxii 
into an outer-reality. These two works are particularly excit- 
ing to me because I at last accomplished something in the 
making of them that I had written hopefully to Maya Deren 
about years ago: films which could be run forwards and 
backwards with equal/integral authenticity — that is that the 
run from end to beginning would hold to the central concern 
of the film . . . rather than simply being some wind and/or un- 
winding of beginning-to-ending's continuum, song xxii, addi- 
tionally, can be run from its mid-point — the singular sun-star 
shape on water — in either direction to beginning or ending . . . 
thus film inherits the possibilities Gabrieli gave to music with 
his piece "My beginning is my ending and my ending is my 
beginning. " 

song xxiii: 23RD psalm branch (1966-67); 100 min. Color. 

Part I — A study of war, created in the imagination in the wake 
of newsreel death and destruction. . . . We had moved around 
a lot and we had settled down enough ... so we got a TV. 
And that was something in the house that I could simply not 
photograph, simply could not deal with visually. It was pour- 
ing forth war guilt, primarily, into the household in a way 



that I wanted to relate to, if I was guilty, but I had feelings 
... of the qualities of guilt and I wanted to have it real for 
me and I wanted to deal with it. 
And, I mean, it was happening on all the programs — on the ads 
as well as drama and even the comedies, and of course the 
news programs. And I had to deal with that. It finally became 
such a crisis that I knew I couldn't deal directly with TV but 
perhaps I could make or find out why war was all that unreal 
to me. . . . 

Part II — A searching-into the "sources" of Part I, it is composed 
of the following sections: Peter Kubelka's Vienna, My Vienna, 
A Tribute to Freud, Nietzsche's Lamb, East Berlin, and Coda. 

songs xxiv & xxv (1967); 10 min. Color. A naked boy and 
flute song and (xxv) a being about nature. 

song xxvi (1967); 8 min. Color. A "conversation piece" — a viz- 
a-visual, inspired by the (e) motional properties of talk: drone, 
bird-like twitterings, statement terror, and bombast. 

my mountain song xxvn (1968); 26 min. Color. A study of 
Arapahoe Peak in all the seasons of two years' photography 
. . . the clouds and weathers that shape its place in landscape — 
much of the photography a-frame-at-a-time: Rivers (1968); 36 
min. Color. A series of eight films intended to echo the themes 


song xxviii (1968); 4 min. Color. A song of scenes as texture. 
song xxix (1969); 4 min. Color. A portrait of the artist's 

American thirties song (1969); 30 min. Color. This film, 
preceded by a portrait of the artist's father, is a long ode to 
the drives and driving spirit of the nineteen-thirties and of 
some of the shapes and textures these energies created across 
the American landscape. This film is dedicated to Jerome Hill, 
whose image appears at the end of its "postlude." 19 

The scope of Songs ranges from the immediate recording of the objects 
of a room by the film-maker sitting in a chaise-longue (Song X) to massive 
meditations on war in two long parts, the second of which has six sub- 
divisions (23rd Psalm Branch). But even that most complex of the Songs 
contains moments and parts resembling the simplest. The persistence and 
diversity of the simple strategies define the elusive unity of the serial work. 
As far as Brakhage may go in forging a complex vision out of the reluctant 
materials of 8mm, he always returns to the immediate, the sketch, the 
familiar — whatever risks being overlooked. The peripety of the thirty 
Songs circumscribes Brakhage the lyricist and apocalyptic visionary while 
he seeks to discover the limits of his new tool, the 8mm camera and film 


Several of the Songs reconsider the questions, emotions, and situations 
of his earlier films. Song V, punning on the birth of his fifth child, brings 
to mind both Window Water Baby Moving and Thigh Line Lyre Trian- 
gular, without the drama of the first or the inwardness of the other. 

In Song VI he looks again for an image of death while filming the last 
moments of a moth against the background of flowered linoleum. Without 
the possibility of solarization (as in The Dead) or collage (as in Mothlight), 
the film-maker must seek simpler means, and he develops a tension be- 
tween the focus on the moth and the linoleum under him, visually incar- 
nating Shelley's description of the filter between eternal and human life as 
a "painted veil." 

In Song XVI he once again attempted to redeem a trite metaphor as 
he had previously done in The Dead and Part Three of Dog Star Man. 
Bracketed by shots of a misty landscape, the film compares flowers to 
sexual organs, and with its continual slow zooms on two layers of super- 
imposition it evokes the rhythms of lovemaking. Often the erotic images 
are indistinct, but at the opening there are nipples, and then an erect penis 
is caressed. The film proceeds from the explicit to the suggestive. At the 
film's climax an orange fan of coral replaces the flowers. Then the end 
comes quickly: buttocks superimposed with other pieces of coral and star- 
fish amid flares of orange. The transformation of the flowers into coral 
provides the film's finest moment; otherwise the flower imagery falls short 
of the film-maker's redemptive aspiration for it. 

The unity of Songs as a whole does not depend entirely on the some- 
times reassuring, sometimes startling reuse of specific images from earlier 
Songs in later ones. Even though 8mm superimposition must be done in 
the camera, which denies the frame-to-frame precision possible in 16mm 
dual-track editing, Brakhage makes extensive use of it. In numerous Songs 
there are isolated superimposed images cut into the texture of the film, but 
in the following films, superimposition is a major force shaping the total- 
ity: I, II, V, VII, VIII, XII; "Jane and the Boys," "Angelo," "Myrrena," 
and "Neowyn" from XV Song Traits; XVI, XVII, XXII; and "Nietzsche's 
Lamb" and the "Coda" from the 13rd Psalm Branch. 

Painting, scratching, and the laying of dots over the image appear 
periodically in the series, despite the immense difficulty of working on the 
surface of a film strip that has only one-fourth the area of 16mm. Songs 
IV, XIV, XXII, and the first part and "Nietzsche's Lamb" from the 23rd 
Psalm Branch depend upon these techniques. Close in texture to the hand- 
painted Songs are the nonobjective works (XI, XX, XXI), exhibiting for 
the most part patterns of pure light. 

Despite the extreme mobility of the 8mm camera, the Songs depend 
less on camera movement than the earlier lyrical films. Brakhage's fight 
with the natural world seems at first to have quieted and his inwardness 
diminished. With couplings such as XXI and XXII and "Rivers" following 
Song XXVII: My Mountain, the opposition of consciousness to the natural 


world reaffirms itself; once again the accent is upon the visionary seer, not 
what he sees. In the light of the whole series, the opposition of early cou- 
plets such as II and III grows clearer. Again, the clues lie in the film- 
maker's note: "An envisionation of fire and a mind's movement in remem- 

Song II shows air distorted by heat, as if just above a burning fire, 
and the sinking sun intercut with rapids of water. It invokes the concept 
of fire without showing a flame. In III, on the other hand, the same images 
of rushing water form a rhythmic montage, alternating directions, into 
which undistinguished shots of a street are injected and lost. Bits of an 
exceptionally grainy green leader, which at first divide the movements of 
water, eventually dominate the film. The displacement of emphasis reduces 
the water from presence to a metaphor for the eccentric movements of the 
grain. In the unpublished interview I have quoted before, Brakhage de- 
scribes the making of this film: 

We were listening to Brahms' Third Symphony and became 
very tortured by the incredible beauty of its seeming to build up 
various kinds of tension and never breaking through any of 
them. I said, "That is a mind process: the way in which the 
mind gets hung up magnificently." It was such a disturbing mo- 
ment that when we finished listening to it we were so excited 
and at the same time frustrated that Jane rushed out into the 
night to take a walk and I immediately picked up some green 
leader which had been baked in the sun . . . that seemed to stand 
for some basic impulse of mine. The question was what could I 
drop into that space? Water, of course, was there. Water shots 
relate to the grain. 

I struggled to get something else in there by dropping in a 
photographic shot. I borrowed what had come with the little 
8mm viewer I bought at this time. It was shot by the man who 
owned the camera store; some shots out of his window of a 
scene in Boulder. It was quite photographic; quite like a picture 
postcard with moving cars. It became possible by editing this 
green leader very carefully, so that it built a certain tension, to 
drop this scene into it via the water shots, which then could be 
drowned by water in another scene. That was a breakthrough 
which could make the leader relate to water and then fall back 
into being just the basic strata of mind movement. 20 

Brakhage never made any changes in already finished Songs to bring 
them into a more explicit relationship with later ones. Some of the op- 
positions are obviously deliberate, such as IT and III, XXI and XXII, and 
others less conscious. But there is no overall antithesis, even of the most 
eccentric order. Instead of a center of gravity, Songs has a turning point 
in the 23rd Psalm Branch, the longest and most intricate of the works. 


Here the repudiation of the physical world in favor of the poetic con- 
sciousness exceeds Brakhage's previous extremes, but two films later, in 
Song XXV, the vehemence is qualified and calmed. 

Numerically, although not temporally, in the center of the thirty films 
are the XV Song Traits. The form of the portrait radiates through the 
Songs, including I, XXIV, and XXIX with fragmentary portraits worked 
into the first part of the 2.3rd Psalm Branch and the end of the American 
Thirties Song. Superimposition and synecdoche are the predominant tropes 
of the film-maker's portraiture. Song I shows several full figures of his wife 
Jane in a striped robe reading and making gestures, whose individuality 
are emphasized by slightly fast-motion recording. In superimposition, pass- 
ing boulders can be seen from a car, and toward the end of the film there 
are successive entrances of someone through a doorway. Brakhage defines 
"Robert Kelly" through close-ups of his hands, pointing and cutting 
cheese, with occasional reference to his face, but not full-figure. Again in 
"Jane and Durin," he gives us parts of the event without the wide view; 
the image will rest on his wife's ankle or on the dog's stomach as she 
scratches him. Only in the final and dedicatory portrait of Jonas Mekas 
does he combine close-up gestures with characteristic movements of the 
whole body without recourse to superimposition. 

Within the limits of the film-maker's conception of portraiture, the 
range of his formal invention is wide. That conception comes close to an 
older desire which he shared with Maya Deren and about which he cor- 
responded with her — that of creating a cinematic haiku form. On the one 
hand, the simplified superimposition of 8mm may be compared to the 
haiku's juxtaposition of two isolated images. On the other hand, Brakhage 
also employs a two-part form in some of the simpler Songs. The synec- 
doches of Kelly, for instance, precede the appearance, fragmentation, and 
reappearance of a moving geometrical form resembling the diagram of 
election orbits around a nucleus or planets around a sun, filmed off a 
television monitor. "The Dorns" contrasts snapshots of the poet Ed Dorn 
and his family with color-filmed images, as if the film-maker was looking 
at the photographs and remembering the moving scene. 

Synecdoche is crucial to all of Brakhage's cinema, but in Song XVIII 
it attains a prominence comparable to the portraits. The "portrait of a 
singular room in the imagination" consists of shadows, illuminated cor- 
ners, bits of wall decoration, surfaces abstracted beyond identification, and 
a closing door. Critic Guy Davenport informs us that we are in a dentist's 
office in this film. 21 

The portrait of "Crystal," by way of contrast to the simple structures 
so far described, uses parallel montage as intricately as the most elaborate 
of the Songs except the 23 r d Psalm Branch. Above all it recalls the play 
of diverse elements in the epithalamion Song IX. A very washed-out, dim 
shot of young Crystal Brakhage crying repeats itself amid images of snow 
outside a window, a canary in a cage, people and reflections at an airport 
(reminiscent of Song XII without quoting from it), children's drawings, 


horses in a blizzard, and changes of light intensity through a window. The 
movements of the camera and the elisions and collisions of the editing 
return to the visual rhetoric of Anticipation of the Night. The elements of 
the portrait combine to describe the anxiety of a child away from home, 
and the repeated emphasis on the cage and even more on looking out of 
the windows of the house raises the metaphor of the self as the center of 
both the house and the cage. 

In Song IX similar camera movements and montage seem more spec- 
tacular because the images they fuse together are more disparate. A rhi- 
noceros pacing back and forth in a cage with a patch of sunlight on his 
hide establishes the initial tempo, into which are cut shots of an outdoor 
wedding by moonlight, two naked children in sex play, a door opening 
on an empty room, and later a moving shot out of the same room with a 
young man silhouetted in it. The jittery dance of the moon over the wed- 
ding party makes specific the allusion to Anticipation of the Night which 
is felt in the construction. There also appears a brief quotation of a win- 
dow by the sea taken from the beginning of Song VII. For Davenport, 
whose insights on the Songs are always valuable, the collision of the wed- 
ding party with the rhinoceros and the "nonchalantly and impudently na- 
ked" children make the film "a comic masterpiece. . . . Brakhage's sense of 
humor is the most difficult of his strategies," he tells us. "In an age of 
largely feminine humor, he remains doggedly masculine in his laughter." 22 

His point is well taken; for of the erotic Songs this is the only piece 
of ribaldry. In place of Song XVI which Davenport admires, I would pro- 
pose Song XIX as the high point of sexual energy in the series. The film 
centers upon slow and fast motion alternations of a woman and a girl 
dancing. One appears to be the film-maker's wife, but it is difficult to be 
certain of identifications in the silhouette effect that their moving bodies 
create in the dim foreground with a bright window behind. The other 
seems in her late adolescence. At first the camera picks out from their slow 
movements slow jumps of the feet or flights of arms. Sometimes only a 
corner or edge of the now blackened screen has a flickering image, a rhyth- 
mic synecdoche of the dance. As they accelerate to a humping motion, or 
so the camera makes them seem, the shadows merge their jagged edges in 
an erotic fusion. Through an open door, bright leaves can be seen blown 
by the wind and speeded up by the camera until their shimmering recalls 
the dancers. Another, younger, girl watches from the doorway as the 
blending of bodies becomes frantic, until the image burns out in flares. 

With the return of a picture we see an altogether different couple, a 
man and a woman standing outside with their dog. The zoom slowly pulls 
back from this black-and-white image, returning inside by montage to the 
fast dance and dim colors several times. The zoom continues to the end 
of the film, revealing a house, then its grounds, a whole village, and finally 
an arid landscape of hills in which the village is situated. Night is falling. 
In a diminuendo of erotic tension the returns to the dance now show the 
smaller girl taking part accompanied by playful leaps of her dog. 


Brakhage has said that this was filmed during a visit to Robert Cree- 
ley's family in New Mexico. Presumably Creeley and his wife were the 
figures before the house, and his two daughters were dancing with Jane 
Brakhage. Creeley had already appeared in the most exceptional of the 
portraits. As he sits and rises from a chair, he changes from positive to 
negative, an intensely subjective image with a presentiment of aging. This 
portrait and the following staccato pixilation of McClure putting on a 
beast's head were originally shot and edited in 16mm and reduced, to be 
included in XV Song Traits as well as released in 16mm as Two: Creeley/ 
McClure. The solarization of the Creeley portrait would be impossible in 
8mm where there is neither negative film nor laboratory superimposition. 

The furthest that Brakhage came in extending the language of 8mm 
cinema was his editing of the 23rd Psalm Branch. Here he managed to 
create extended passages of dynamic montage out of two-frame (one- 
twelfth of a second) elements. He solved the problem of cluttering the 
screen with hundreds of splicing marks by introducing two frames of black 
leader between every shot, causing a rapid winking effect in the projection 
of the film but hiding the splices. He also succeeded in applying several 
sizes and varieties of ink dots to the surface of the 8mm image; at times 
hundreds seem to be clustered in the tiny frames. 

The phenomenal and painstaking craftsmanship of this film reflects 
the intensity of the obsession with which its theme grasped his mind. In 
1966, out of confusion about the Vietnam war and the American reaction 
to it, with which he had to deal in the question periods following his 
lectures on various campuses, Brakhage began to meditate on the nature 
of war. He amassed a collection of war documentaries and diligently stud- 
ied newsreels and political speeches on television to the point of speculat- 
ing on the significance of recurring clusters and shapes of the dots on the 
television screen; he read memoirs and battle descriptions, Gibbon's De- 
cline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and he claimed to read Tacitus instead 
of the daily newspaper at breakfast because the intrigues were the same 
and better written in the first century historian's version. The fruit of his 
studies and thoughts was the longest and most important of the Songs. A 
tour of lectures, in which he tried to express what could not be contained 
in the film was so confused and self-tortured in style that it approached 

If any of the earlier Songs seemed to assert the priority of nature over 
imagination, that impression has no place in the 23rd Psalm Branch; it is 
an apocalypse of the imagination. The consciousness of the film-maker 
moves between his idea of home and the self and his vision of war. A very 
fast pan of a passing landscape, as if shot from a car on a highway, stops 
short continually with the flashing interjection of dead bodies from stock 
black-and-white footage and flickerings of solid colors. In the prolongation 
of this effect the short images of death are sometimes painted over. 

The first release from this insistent prologue comes as the words "Take 
back Beethoven's 9th, then, he said" are scratched in black leader. 23 They 


are the first of several quotations in the film. Another continuous pan 
follows, shot like the first but showing a deep passing land- and townscape 
rather than a moving flat blur. Into this lateral movement he first cuts a 
series of explosions, then explosions mixed with guns firing, the atomic 
bomb, a flood, cannon exploding, water leaping over a dam, tactical 
bombs, and burning buildings. At times the montage of horrors pursues 
its own split-second dynamic as if forgetting to relocate itself in the passing 
American landscape. 

In his lectures at the time, Brakhage maintained a desperate fatalism. 
He spoke of war as a "natural disaster," assigning it an inevitable role like 
that of tornadoes or earthquakes. At times his audiences, and perhaps he 
himself, took this postulate to be a reconciliation with the fact of war, 
when within the film it was another, more vehement attack on nature. 

A color flicker transfers us to a second text, a letter being written by 
the film-maker as he sits bare-chested in the sun. The speed of the panning 
makes it difficult to read. "Dear Jane," it begins, "The checker boards and 
zig-zags of man." On the next line we can only catch the crucial word 
"Nature." Turning from the letter, the camera shows us stones, fast move- 
ments over the ground, and flashes of a blue-tinted sun until a multicol- 
ored, hand-painted passage intrudes. It precedes a fast montage of images 
of the home, including visual quotations of the nude children from the 
"Neowyn" portrait and sledge riding from "Myrrena and Neowyn." The 
pace of the editing relaxes with shots of laundry on a wash line, a donkey, 
the sky. Airplane wings introduce a return to the letter, and the subsequent 
quick cutting of wings, clouds, and aerial views of the ground illustrate 
the expressions "zig-zags" and "checker boards." 

After another color flicker and a passage of hand-painting, a third 
quotation, in the form of an open book of poetry, emerges. It is the be- 
ginning of the eleventh section of Louis Zukofsky's A: 

River, that must turn full after I stop dying 
Song, my song, raise grief to music 
Light as my loves' thought, the few sick 
So sick of wrangling: thus weeping 
Sounds of light, stay in her keeping 
And my son's face — this much for honor. 

The second line is most readable in the camera's panning. "Song, my song, 
raise grief to music" defines the aspiration of the film and the cry of the 
film-maker. Another burst of explosions and bombs brackets a visual rep- 
etition of the poem. 

Fast animation of children's drawings, also warlike, introduces a flick- 
ering alternation between them and the film-maker's face; and then the 
face alone flickers amid bits of blackness. The same fragmenting rhythm 
presents two warriors fighting in a print of a Hellenic vase, which disap- 


pears in red flares. Then, after a pause of blackness, the camera draws 
back from the face of the poet Zukofsky. His name on his book identifies 
him for those who do not recognize his rarely photographed face. Another 
zoom shows, dimly, his wife Celia. We see the poet only once more; that 
is after an exposition of colored frames mixed with the wrecks of build- 
ings. But this time the movement away from his face leads to a series of 
Jews in concentration camps, as the film-maker considers what might have 
been the poet's fate had he lived in Europe thirty years before. 

One of the conclusions which Brakhage reached in his study of news- 
reels, propounded in his lectures, was that crowds take a distinctive shape 
under the spirit of war. That shape, he held, defies the limitations of police 
restraint or topological constriction. Furthermore, the size of the crowd 
does not change the shape. Illustrating not this mysterious shape, but the 
identity of crowds, Brakhage cut another montage of equivalences out of 
his documentaries and placed it after the Zukofsky portrait. Here the lines 
of a parade and those of a procession within a cathedral do take the same 
linear shape, but then quick cuts of Hitler marching, numerous parades, 
religious processions, funerals, crowds cheering, tickertape celebrations, 
and crowds fighting police all flow together in a sustained explosion of 
mass frenzy. 

From then until the scratched declaration several minutes later, "I 
can't go on," the pace of the montage generally maintains this intensity as 
the images shift slightly from crowds to a meeting of generals or the signing 
of a treaty, obscured by tiny ink dots which change their size and the 
direction of their drift across the screen continually. 

But after the declaration Brakhage does go on, continuing for a short 
time the comparison of weaponry and moving the sequence toward the 
end with the slow fall into the sea of a single burning airplane, an action 
extended by progressively longer interruptions of black leader. From a last 
burst of explosions he returns to the letter by way of a split-screen effect 
I shall describe below. The speed of the cutting makes it difficult to be 
sure of the text. He writes, "I must stop. The war is as thoughts/ patterns 
are — as endless as . . . precise as eye's hell is!" 

When 8mm films are prepared for multiple printing, a master is made 
on 1 6mm with two bands: on the right, half the film is printed from top 
to bottom; on the left, the other half is printed in the opposite direction. 
After the master is printed, a machine splits the double strip down the 
middle. Brakhage had an 8mm reduction made of the 16mm master. He 
thus had a copy of the film with four frames on the screen; a sequence of 
two on the left and two, upside-down, on the right. Before the last shots 
of the letter the film-maker provides us with a taste of his later recapitu- 
lation by introducing a piece from the middle of the master, but after we 
read Brakhage's handwriting, he starts from the beginning, including the 
titles with the fragmented and accelerated repetition (since four frames pass 
at the rate of one). This tactic provides an alternative to the conclusion of 


Dog Star Man/The Art of Vision; it dissolves the tension of the film by 
suggesting that the events depicted are cyclic while it reduces the illusion 
to cinematic physicality. 

Brakhage must have felt the cyclical and tautological conclusion in- 
sufficient for this film, since he followed it with a second part. There he 
reconsidered the idea of war in terms of what he saw in front of him as 
he traveled in eastern Europe. The whole reformulation is called "To 
Source" and opens with a short prologue of a lamp superimposed over a 
landscape and night lights. The first two subsections are obviously anti- 
thetical: "Of Peter Kubelka's Vienna" and "My Vienna." The former is a 
parallel montage of six elements: Kubelka playing his recorder, a view of 
a building shot from below, "Stop" and "Go" traffic lights in alternation, 
Kubelka walking on the streets of Vienna with a young child, and a statue 
in a public square. 

"My Vienna" begins with Brakhage's vision of himself in a foreign 
city and then moves from his thoughts of home to his imagination of 
wartime Vienna, and ends with an ambiguous comparison of art to death. 

As he films images of falling snow from a Viennese window the scene 
shifts to his home in Colorado; first to the window from Crystal's portrait, 
then to the sledges of "Myrrena and Neowyn" and the nude children of 
"Neowyn," all quoted from XV Song Traits. Still in Colorado, but with 
unfamiliar shots, the door of his house opens, the fire burns in the hearth, 
and Jane appears. This sequence has a red tone which elides with the 
switch back to Vienna, where Brakhage, Kubelka, and a woman, all toned 
red, are still at the table. Regular alternations move between Vienna and 
Colorado until the film-maker's imagination of the past calls up the image 
of Hitler from an old documentary. The film ends with the mixture of 
several artistic representations of Christ and documentary footage of dead 

"My Vienna" restates the more complex dialectic of the whole of Part 
One of this film. The transformation of apprehension into dreadful ima- 
ginings is clearly illustrated by the positing of the middle terms of asso- 
ciation: Kubelka's family reminds Brakhage of his own; the streets of Vi- 
enna bring to mind the damage to them during the war; the Christian 
idealization of the suffering of Jesus makes him consider the inglorious 
destruction of men by war. 

The next three sections, "A Tribute to Freud," "Nietzsche's Lamb," 
and "East Berlin," gradually apply a brake to the dynamics of everything 
that preceded them. They are intellectually and formally the simplest of 
the subsections, although "Nietzsche's Lamb" must be characterized as the 
most complex of the three. 

"A Tribute to Freud" not only pays homage to the father of psycho- 
analysis by recording a pilgrimage through Vienna to the house where he 
lived; it indirectly salutes the poet H. D. by borrowing the title of her 
memoir of Freud. The most striking image of this section occurs at the 



very end. It is a transparent group of female figures, like the Muses, on 
the glass of the door Freud must have moved through daily. 

"Nietzsche's Lamb" combines images of an airplane flight (presumably 
the film-maker's return from Europe) with shots of a skinned lamb in a 
theatrical event by Hermann Nitsch. Montage at the beginning smoothed 
over and periodically almost obliterated by paint and dots becomes su- 
perimposition in the second half of the film. The title puns on the 
happening-maker's name and that of the nineteenth-century philosopher. 

There is an ambivalence in Brakhage's attitude toward Nitsch's Dio- 
nysiac art. He cannot disassociate it from the contexts of war and his 
impressions of Eastern Europe. As he films the ground from above, zoom- 
ing down and back, he associates that vision with aerial maps of cities and 
a relief globe of the world. More enigmatic are two quotations from Song 
XIX of the dancing girl cut into "Nietzsche's Lamb," until we recall the 
ritual element in Brakhage's description of that film: the quotation is an- 
other pun, "a dancing song of women's rites." The theatrical ritual of the 
Manifest Der Lamm finds its counterpart in the spontaneous rite of Song 

The last and most mysterious section of the film brings us back to 
Europe and "East Berlin." Both "Nietzsche's Lamb" and "East Berlin" 
seek to ground Brakhage's experience of Europe in "closed-eye vision." In 
the former he achieved this through over-painting so that the maps, aerial 
views, boats, dances, and so on seemed to become concrete out of the 
cracks and colors of the paint, which at times completely obfuscated the 
image underneath. In "East Berlin" he transferred strategies from painting 
to combining flares, images only of lights against a black sky, and finally 
moving dots. 

In making the 23rd Psalm Branch Brakhage was responding to the 
anxiety around him about the Vietnam War. In the terms which I have 
been using to discuss his vision, the force with which that war entered his 
thoughts challenged the metaphysical priority of the inner man. The fin- 
ished film confirms the autonomy of the imagination and incorporates war 
through strategies of generalization, the dialectic of ideas and sights, con- 
trasting subjective experiences of a single place, the oblique reference to 
the author of Civilization and Its Discontents, and finally closed-eye vision. 

The "Coda" begins with a complete rupture from the images and tech- 
niques of the rest of the film and ends with a disquieting metaphor for the 
undefeatable impulse to war within the human spirit. This final image is 
all the more disturbing because it occurs in a joyous mood at the end of 
a brief pastorale. The "Coda" begins in the portrait style; a man and a 
woman, playing music, lead without rupture to the final superimposition. 
A group of children play and dance in the woods at night waving burning 
sparklers while the image of a donkey fades in and out several times in 
superimposition. The terrible association of the sparkler dance with the 
Nazi Walpurgisnacht arise, perhaps the more dreadfully because Brakhage 



does not emphasize them with a montage of analogies. Thus this film, 
which had made an equation among parades, victory celebrations, street 
fights, and rallies, culminates in a cyclic vision and a discovery of the seeds 
of war in the pastoral vision. 24 

Song XXVII: My Mountain follows the structure of the 23 rd Psalm 
Branch: a long abstract presentation in the first part, then a second part 
of eight "Rivers" qualifying the first part in terms of the self. For approx- 
imately the first twenty minutes of the twenty-six-minute-long first part, 
Brakhage presents shot after shot of a mountain peak, snow-covered 
throughout the change of seasons. Clouds and mists have a prominent role 
in this film; they can completely obscure the peak, sweep over it in fast 
motion, or begin a shot by blocking it, only to clear away, or the reverse; 
sometimes the film-maker even veers from the mountain to show cloud 

According to his statements, Brakhage was studying Dutch and Flem- 
ish painting while working on this film. He singled out Van Eyck for his 
attention to figures at the very edge of the composition. Brakhage did not 
use a tripod to film any of the images in Song XXVII, he claims. The 
laborious work of taking single frames of cloud movements must have 
been done while he was steadying the camera in his hands. This method 
causes slight movements on the edge of the frame which are almost un- 
noticeable when the eye fixes itself on the centered mountain peak. The 
illusion of fixity in the center and shimmering at the edges of the screen 
creates a visual tension which the film-maker felt would be lost if the 
viewer sensed the solidity of a tripod and the impossibility of variation. 

If we recall that the lucid, even triumphal inwardness of the 2.3rd 
Psalm Branch was exceptional within the Songs, we can see how the un- 
easy relation with the natural world, more characteristic of the series as a 
whole, reasserts itself in the first part of Song XXVII: My Mountain. With 
the change of techniques and the shift of the center of attention at the end 
of the film, Brakhage begins the undermining or subjectification of what 
had been the most self-enduring natural image in the whole of Songs. 

In Romantic poetry the image of the mountain has repeatedly initiated 
a reaffirmation of the self and the imagination. In his study of landscape 
in Romanticism, Paul de Man quotes passages from Rousseau, Words- 
worth, and Holderlin on Alpine landscapes. "Each of these texts describes 
the passage from a certain type of nature, earthly and material, to another 
nature which could be called mental and celestial." 25 

The primary reflex of each of the "Rivers" is to move from an opening 
shot of the mountain, or its clouds, to a more interiorized image. The eight 
sections range between the explicit and the hermetic. In the first of them, 
after a quick intercutting of the mountain and flames, Brakhage calls at- 
tention to the mechanism of the camera through a variation on the jump- 
ing image at the end of the first part. Here the distortion of the picture is 
not complete; the loss of a loop in the camera resulted in a small fluttering, 
a ghost-like flickering above a more solid form. With this technique he 


shows us parts of a small town: traffic lights changing color, a church 
steeple. The section ends, without fluttering, in fast pans back and forth 
over the mountain, undermining its presence and asserting that of the film- 

In discussing the portrait "Crystal," I made the point that Brakhage 
uses the mediation of a smeared, streaked, or dimly-reflecting window 
while recording an outside view, as a metaphor for the circumference of 
the self. In "Rivers" he makes extensive use of this trope. The sixth section, 
which like the first begins with an intercutting of mountain and fire, 
quickly settles upon a long series of images of two horses in the snow. 
They are seen through a window in which are reflected flames and some- 
times shimmering patterns of light. The next part, another portrait of Jane 
Brakhage, begins with her looking out of a window. The film-maker is 
outside filming in. From this image we can trace the window trope back 
to Maya Deren and Meshes of the Afternoon. Like the heroine of that film, 
Jane Brakhage mediates a subjective reflection; with one splice we see her 
younger, with much longer hair, sitting outside with her three daughters. 
In the middle of the film a composite use of the window mediation appears 
when Brakhage films his daughters, now older than when we first saw 
them, looking out of the window; he is shooting from inside his car, whose 
windshield wipers cross the image. 

The most explicit of the sections, "River 4," makes the fullest use of 
the window. Shot from one of the upper stories of Denver's largest hotel, 
it shows the neon and white lights of the city at night while in the fore- 
ground the standing nude body of the film-maker can be seen in the win- 
dow's reflection. He concentrates on the reflection of his palm which leads 
immediately to shots of a frosted window intercut for several minutes with 
aerial views of mountain ranges, as if arising in the metaphoric imagina- 
tion as he contemplates the lines of his hand. 

Brakhage subscribes to the belief, most forcefully put forward among 
his contemporaries by Charles Olson, that the artistic sensibility has priv- 
ileged access to a holistic vision. In the American Thirties Song he explores 
the aerial view as a tool for discovering patterns not immediately visible 
to the grounded observer. From the aerial perspective he records the shape 
of farm lands and cities and the organization of residential blocks. From 
the title and from his notes we learn that he associates these patterns with 
American life in the 1930s, when he was born. 

Before the titles, very fast blurred panning movements recall the open- 
ing of the 23rd Psalm Branch. Out of these movements come quick, jittery 
glimpses of the face of Brakhage's father. The speed decelerates. An old 
woman is hanging out her wash. We see the old hands of Brakhage's father 
inside an automobile. After the title the portrait shifts to the more familiar, 
synecdochic style. In dim red outline we see the shape of the man's bald 
head, his shoes, his hands calling to mind the more sinister Song XXIX, 
and another dim red portrait of the film-maker's mother, who appears 
almost androgynous in her old age. 


From the obscurity of the portrait the film moves to a short, bright 
movement of kitsch — flamingo designs in a bathroom, a few Roman Cath- 
olic household images, a picture of Jesus as a shepherd, an angel doll. As 
the Songs touch upon social behavior, Brakhage is careful not to use im- 
ages in a strictly ironic manner; the visual studies of middle-class neigh- 
borhoods and decorating styles are presented in this film as fact, without 
condemnation by the film-maker. While he was making the American Thir- 
ties Song, Brakhage developed a passionate interest in American genre 
painting, which informs many aspects of this film. 

Early in the film a car ride through a residential neighborhood with 
the camera jerkily recording passing trees and barely distinguishing the 
houses beyond them turns into an abstract metaphor: bluish trees become 
lines of water and a whirl of yellow lights. 

The most striking of the interludes returns to the structures of Song 
XIII, the travel song, in the middle of the film which is itself largely an 
extension of that earlier Song. In a slightly elliptical sequence of shots a 
ferry or tourist boat docks at a pier in New York's Hudson River. Each 
shot in the sequence begins in an impressionistic blur as a mist quickly 
evaporates on the lens. 26 Then in superimposition he combines passing 
trains, or at times views from a moving train, with other harbor scenes in 
a smooth texture of elision. Ocean liners move on the river; isolated 
smokestacks gush up steam and smoke and cross the bottom of the frame. 
When the river scenes end temporarily, the train superimposition continues 
over a view from above of a city hotdog cart and its owner. 

The last third of the film exclusively employs aerial imagery. From this 
there is a smooth transition to the dedicatory "Postlude." In synecdochic 
compositions and with short elliptical jumps, the film-maker shows an 
airport, the landing of a jet, the movement of a baggage wagon, the taxiing 
of the airplane, the fitting of the deboarding tube, and finally the emer- 
gence of the film-maker Jerome Hill among the passengers. A sweep of 
sprocket holes, a final reminder of the artifice of film, precedes the con- 
cluding signature. 

Although there is a complete absence of mythological reference in the 
Songs, the series as a whole participates in the myth of the absolute film. 
One of the central aspirations of the avant-garde film has been the creation 
of an ultimate work: this aspiration has moved in two directions — toward 
purification, a reduction to the essence of cinema, and toward giant, all- 
inclusive forms. Both forms of absolutism can be traced through Brak- 
hage's statements on his work. He has never addressed himself to a defi- 
nition of the essence of his medium — although tautological references to 
the materials occur in most of his mature work — but he has referred to 
several of his shorter films at the time of release as "the most perfect" he 
has ever made. 

Songs began with the film-maker's attempt to move away from mon- 
umental forms and from the commitment to a single work over a number 
of years. It grew into a work longer than The Art of Vision and much 


more diverse in its materials. Songs presents an alternative to The Art of 
Vision; both have their origin in a concept of "dailiness" which Brakhage 
derived from his reading of Gertrude Stein; one approaches an epic of 
dailiness through organized mythopoeia, the other through a series of in- 
terrelated forms (fragments, essays, portraits, odes). In i960 Brakhage pre- 
sented a foundation with a project for "the dailiness film." The grant was 
rejected. In the synopsis printed in the chapter "State Meant" of Meta- 
phors on Vision both long films have their roots. It begins: 

I am planning a feature-length film in which those common- 
place daily activities which my wife and child and I share in some- 
form or other with almost every family on earth are visually ex- 
plored to the fullest extent of their universal meaning. 

Having launched the ship of "the dailiness film." the title with 
which I refer to the inspiration for this project, I can only exem- 
plify certain possible developments for such a beginning [refer- 
ring to possible images he had described], as it is essential to the 
integrity of such a project that its individual scenes arise out of 
the daily activities of our living and that these developing frag- 
ments inspired in the immediacy of life direct the form of the 
entire work. In the Mallarmean sense, the shadow between the 
white waves of these stapled pages is a better "hull" for the ship 
of the "dailiness film" than any number of words here written, 
for each state of this film must be realized in the drama of our 
living and visualized in the creative act, not predetermined by 
the literary form of this appeal. 27 

The years spanned by the making of Songs saw a number of collective 
morphological developments in the American avant-garde cinema that are 
reflected within the encyclopedic form of that work. In the first place, the 
film diary began to emerge as a significant form during this period, which 
will be more fully discussed in Chapter eleven. Its origins can be traced 
back to Marie Menken's Notebook and several films of Cornell (and in- 
deed to Cornell's attitude toward film-making as an extremely personal 
experience), with which both Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, the American 
avant-garde cinema's major diarist, were very familiar. 

The first series of film portraits was made by Andy Warhol in 1964 
and 1965 (Henry Geldzahler, 13 Most Beautiful Women, 13 Most Beau- 
tiful Boys). Between 1964 and 1966 he made two long series of four- 
minute portraits united by the title 50 Fantastics and 50 Personalities. 
Independent of Warhol (although sometimes aggressively antagonistic to- 
ward his work), Brakhage began the XV Song Traits in 1965. The next 
year Gregory Markopoulos presented his first portrait collection, Galaxie. 
Subsequently he has made Political Portraits (1969) and several uncol- 
lected portraits. 



It is particularly surprising to find a version of the structural film (see 
Chapter twelve) within the Songs. The first part of Song XXVII: My 
Mountain suspends the film-maker's usual reliance on montage, metaphor, 
and dynamic rhythm to concentrate on a single view. This happened at 
the same time as George Landow, Michael Snow, and several others were 
employing similar strategies, but out of very different aesthetic promptings. 
And there were similar preoccupations in the work of Gregory Marko- 
poulos (Gammelion, 1968) and Bruce Baillie at this time. 

In Quixote Baillie had brought his lyrical cinema to the threshold of 
epic and mythopoeia. Although it seemed at that time that, like most of 
the major avant-gardists, he would plunge into an extended mythopoeic 
work, he resisted that drive, making instead his late lyrical and structural 
films, Tung, Castro Street, All My Life, Still Life, and Valentin de las 
Sierras. In 1967 he began an almost fatal bout with hepatitis which he 
recorded in his most ambitious film, Quick Billy (1971), a four-part, hour- 
long essay in mythopoeia and autobiography. He presented the following 
note with the film at its New York premiere at the Whitney Museum of 
American Art: 

The essential experience of transformation, between Life and 
Death, death and birth, or rebirth. In four reels, the first three 
adapted from the Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the 
Dead. The fourth reel is in the form of a black and white one- 
reeler Western, summarizing the material of the first three reels, 
which are color and abstract. 

The work incorporates a large body of material dreams, the 
daily recording roll by roll of that extraordinary period of the 
filmmaker's life, "the moment by moment confrontation with 
Reality," (Carl Jung, The Tibetan Book of the Dead). Each 
phase of the work was given its own time to develop, stretching 
over a period of 3 X A years. 

"The rolls," silent 3 minute rolls of films that came after the 
film itself, like artifacts from the descending layers of an archae- 
ological dig . . . numbered 41, 43, 46, and 47. Aesthetically 
complete, thus included (rent free option) as part of the total 
work. Reel 4 conceived by Paul Tulley, Charlotte Todd, and my- 
self, with Debby Porter, Bob Treadwell and Kiro Tulley. Music 
by John Adams, titles by Bob Ross. 

The "rolls" took the form of a correspondence, or theatre, 
between their author and Stan Brakhage, in the winter of 1968- 
69. 28 

Baillie's deepest debt to Brakhage, however, is not the encouraging 
letters he wrote in response to the four epilogue reels, which he saw out 
of context; it is rather to the opening of Prelude: Dog Star Man and to 
the whole of Part Three of that film. 29 The whole first three reels of Quick 


Billy hover on the edge of consciousness, mixing, blurring, and masking 
images so that they are rarely definable, even though within its own range 
of textures the film proceeds from the abstract to the relatively concrete 
and specific before leaping into the ironic narrative of the fourth reel. Dog 
Star Man had elaborated the possibilities of different densities of super- 
imposition. Baillie's contribution to this rhetoric, which is particularly ef- 
fective in the three areas of his concentration, the evocation of natal, than- 
atotic, and erotic consciousness, comes from his application of the 
processes of Castro Street to the materials of Quick Billy. He mixes his 
own superimpositions with complex masking, while Brakhage had worked 
in simple additive units (two to four layers). Furthermore, Baillie reinforces 
his visual mesh with an equally subtle fusion of natural noises, voice, and 
artificially altered sounds on the soundtrack. 

Baillie has written, "All of the film was recorded next to the Pacific 
Ocean in Fort Bragg, California, from dreams and daily life there; all of 
it given its own good time to evolve and become clear to me. The sea is 
the main force through the film. 'Prentice to the Sea!' was something I 
wrote to myself in those days." 

Like the different kinds of cinematic objects within Brakhage's Songs, 
the successive styles of Baillie's epic, represented by the first three reels, the 
fourth reel, and the "rolls" separately, define boundaries of visual expe- 
rience — the oneiric and intellectual, the narrative and parodic, the imme- 
diate and retinal — but in their quest for origins, which Baillie associates, 
in his thirty volumes of notes and diaries relating to the film (in the An- 
thology Film Archives), with the "loss of innocence," he attempted to in- 
corporate within the film the temporality of its creation, which Brakhage, 
in the simple chronology of his pieces, avoided. Later, making Scenes from 
Under Childhood, he began to take it into consideration. In his letter to 
Baillie about the last two "rolls" (46, 47), he describes the process in its 
full complexity, although he did not know at the time that the whole of 
Baillie's film would not be as immediate and unedited as the "rolls": 

Anyway, [Scenes from Under Childhood] is close to your work 
(& now, & from now on, as "in touch" as I am): and one of 
the most exciting approximations is this involvement with the- 
sceen-as-photographed, relatively free of Edit's Intellect and/or 
the SUPERimposition of the process of memory upon each in- 
stant of living: you, as I, seem to be taking strong advatage of 
film's most unique possibility —preservation of the track of light 
in the field of vision (thus the each move of the visionary) at the/ 
each instant of photographing: I now find myself solidly See-er 
of my photography, rather than Editor thereOF it: but this in- 
spiration — in the work process — exists in the incredible tension 
of my feeling an equal need to let Memory COLOR each uned- 
ited light track ... via "B" and "C" rolls generally . . . and 
SHAPE both objects and spaces ... by way of compounding 



pics. /spaces, rather than superimposing upon them — again BC 
stuffing mostly: sometimes I even compress, by additives; and I 
do, then, tremble on the edge of superimposition: and, let's face 
it, sometimes I still just-plain-superimpose, as always, also: but 
the general DRIVE is one in honor of the moment of photogra- 
phy, so that there's very little shifting of the orders of shots 
within a sequence, and very little cutting of lengths of shot ei- 
ther. Actually, I've worked (more sub-consciously) in this area 
of direction many times before ("Desist-film" — THAT far back — 
"Daybreak & Whiteye," "Films by S. B.," the "T.V. Concretes," 
many "Songs" and many sequences of "Scenes From Under 
Childhood," Sec. #i): and it's coming to seem to me that 
"Scenes From Under Childhood" on its primary visual level IS a 
track of the evolution of SIGHT: thus its images flash out of 
blanks of color, thru fantastic distorts/twists of forms and orders 
(those fantasies wherein one imagines oneself: even suggesting 
those "pre-natal fantasies" wherein Freud, to his despair, finally 
found that unanalysable nest hatching all basic neuroses), space/ 
shape absolutely dominated by the rhythms of inner physiology, 
then shaking like jellied masses at first encounters with outers, 
the beginning of The Dance, shattering OUT of even memory's 
grip thru TO some exactitude of sight/light. 30 

His annotations on the entire correspondence relate Brakhage's expressions 
to his own readings in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The words "pres- 
ervation" and "inner physiology" touch upon the central themes of Quick 
Billy, although Brakhage could not have known it from the fragments he 

In the notebooks, Baillie once summarized the first three reels in eleven 

I. Loss. II. The Beast III. Protection IV. cont. passage V. schism 
VI. White Goddess VII. Male-Female Embrace VIII. High School 
Heroes. IX. Wrathful Deity/ Judgment X. Protecting Environ- 
ment (birth?) XI. Sea/The Father (Intelligence). 

Yet even with the aid of this synopsis, and more detailed subheadings, I 
cannot isolate all the parts of the film. The imagery is often so abstracted, 
and the elision of sections so smooth, that the whole film seems like a 
pulsating matrix, at first alternating between a consciousness of birth and 
one of death, and later letting emerge, sometimes very briefly, the dream- 
like, anamorphic image of a beckoning female (perhaps the White God- 
dess), or evoking in sound and pictures physical lovemaking; and then 
pausing meditatively over pictures from an album in which photographs 
of a high school basketball team predominate. 


All through the film are woven images of the sea, trees, animals — 
including the fearful symmetry of a dream-like tiger — fire, the sun, and 
the moon. The superimposition with the textural masking blends these 
images together and often keeps them at the threshold of recognition, as 
I have said; it also creates mutations of form and color which give an 
aspect of the monstrous to the imagery. Baillie originally planned to call 
the film Feetfear. He told Richard Whitehall: 

It's a name came to me in a series of dreams, and the film will 
try to film those dreams I've had. There's a whole mythology of 
my own grown out of there, and this is probably due to the cra- 
ziness from hepatitis. This chemical change in the brain opera- 
tion. It's a little like being high on a small amount of LSD. And 
I went up into the woods of Oregon and I was terrified. The 
blackness. And I've had terrifying bestial dreams. They work 
their way out into a lovelier meeting with Diana, the protectress 
of men in the woods. I wrote them all down in detail, and I 
don't know exactly what I'm going to work with, what I'm go- 
ing to photograph. Using Kodachrome because it's easy to keep 
it dark and non-grainy around the edges when you're working 
in a low-level light. It would almost be more effective in anima- 
tion. It's really the edges of shadows and colors and working in 
a totally abstract way, and somehow realizing animal shapes out 
of it — almost the way one would impose an animated figure 
into a photographed frame. The way Alexieff does it in Night 
on Bare Mountain. In a way it grows out of the things that 
have been very close to me over the past few months, a form of 
death. Using the real animals as well as their shapes. Symbols. 
The word "symbol" is kind of hard to use. But it really is sym- 
bols. 31 

In the same synopsis that I quoted, he tries to define the title Feetfear by 
placing next to it the expression, "Fear of leaving the beast/loss of inno- 
cence — 'confronted by Reality.' " At that time he reserved the title Quick 
Billy for the ironic fourth reel. 

That parody, "set in Kansas in 1863," describes in ribald gags the 
arrival of an uncouth cowboy, played by the film-maker, who takes over 
a Kansas farmhouse. His drunkenness and his rape of the farm girl parody 
the states of marginal consciousness and the powerful erotic episode in the 
earlier part, where Baillie worked with close-up and colored images of the 
male and female body in a direct descent from Part Three: Dog Star Man. 

Baillie offers a cinematic and a literary analogy to the "rolls" in the 
notebooks; they are "like chambers (episodes: e.g., Cocteau's hotel, or 
Steppenwolf's magic theater)." They not only represent an early temporal 
stratum in the composition of the film, they also locate in magical visions, 


according to the analogies, the origins of the film, fix the place where it 
was shot, show a prop for the fourth reel in its presence outside of the 
narrative, define the space of a breakfast scene that the film-maker had 
earlier described on the sound track. Thus, in one of the rolls the startling 
face of the nearly dying film-maker, which Brakhage accurately described 
to him as staring into the camera as if into a mirror, identifies the maker, 
whom we see otherwise in extreme body close-ups or in the cowboy per- 
sona. In another, a giant Uncle Sam prop which had been used in the 
black-and-white fourth reel moves along the seascape, which appears for 
the first time without distortion, uniting the two earlier sections of the 
film. Finally, the slow pan around the kitchen shows the cabin where most 
of the film was made and recalls in the silent images of an empty room 
the breakfast, described in the longest passage of talk in the first three 
reels, of "hot pancakes and eggs and fresh bread and tea and honey" as 
they "sat in front of the window and watched the sea, where I shot all the 

Baillie insists that Quick Billy be shown on a single projector, so that 
a pause would ensue between each of the reel changes. With the addition 
of the four "rolls," he then simultaneously returns his film from its tem- 
poral cross-references to its origins in an affirmation of "the moment of 
photography," and he reminds his audience that they are in front of a film, 
awaiting the change of reels. The first three reels had moved at once for- 
ward toward death and backward to adolescence and birth. In the fourth 
reel an arbitrary date in the past, 1863, began the film, and a projection 
into the future, the title "Ever Westward Eternal Rider!" ended it. After 
those allusions to temporal cycles, he rests on "film's most unique possi- 
bility — preservation of the track of light in the field of vision." 

bsolute Animation 


film-making of the late 1950s utilized the 
trance form and psycho-drama. The 
graphic cinema offered a vital alternative 
to the subjective. This polarity (and the 
potential for its convergence) extends back 
to the origins of the avant-garde film in 
Europe in the 1920s. Through the exam- 
ples of Un Chien Andalou, he Sang d'un 
Poete, and Entr'Acte, a continuity has 
been suggested between the Surrealist and 
Dada cinema and the works of Maya 
Deren and Sidney Peterson. Another wing 
of the Dadaist cinema fused with filmic 
Cubism and Neoplasticism to produce 
films of equally major significance. In the 
1920s the spectrum extending from Surre- 
alism to Cubism in the cinema was contin- 
uous. But with the renaissance of indepen- 
dent film-making in America during and 
just after the Second World War, graphic 
and subjective film-making ideologically 
diverged and remained apart until their 
slow reconciliation in the early 1960s. 

Hans Richter's Rhytbmus 21 (1921), 
Viking Eggeling's Symphonie Diagonale 
(1921), Marcel Duchamp's Anemic 



Cinema (1927), and Fernand Leger's Ballet Mecanique (1924) constitute 
the central works of the initial graphic cinema, and they span the scope 
of its variations. 

Richter, who had been a painter and scroll-maker, took the primal 
conditions of black and white and the rectangular shape of the screen as 
the essential elements of his film. In sweeping movements which begin in 
the center of the screen and move out horizontally or vertically, the flat 
black space becomes white or vice versa. Within this matrix of fluctuating 
negative and positive space, white, gray, and black squares emerge from 
and recede into an illusory depth of the screen in a rhythmic pattern that 
grows increasingly more intricate until its sudden and short reversal to the 
elements of the black-and-white screen at the very end of the film. 

Eggeling worked with Richter, and like him the urge to make films 
came from a desire to extend his work on scrolls into time. In his film 
Symphonie Diagonale, figures move along alternative diagonal lines 
crossing the screen from upper left to lower right and from upper right to 
lower left. At the same time they seem to move in depth from the surface 
of the screen to an imaginary receding point at its center, as Richter's 
squares had, and back again. Finally, Eggeling's shapes evolve in straight 
and elaborately curved lines while they pursue their diagonal and 
emerging-receding movements. The musicality of Symphonie Diagonale 
comes from its exhaustive use of reciprocal movements. An elaboration 
along one diagonal axis is mirrored immediately along the other; the 
growth at one end of a figure is matched by its disunion at another end; 
a movement into the screen precedes one out of it. 

In Anemic Cinema, Duchamp alternates head-on views of his illusion- 
producing roto-reliefs with similarly turned discs of words, elaborate 
French puns printed spirally, creating a fluctuation of illusory depth within 
a very narrow spectrum (from the slightly convex or slightly concave il- 
lusions) to the flat readings. In this, his only film, Duchamp typically crys- 
tallized the significance of the graphic film. By virtue of its inheritance from 
still photography, the representation of space in depth comes naturally to 
the cinema, and the first films exploited it gloriously. The graphic film- 
maker deliberately rejected the illusion of depth built into the camera's 
lenses. 1 He set out to re-establish virtual depth by manipulating the scale 
of flat plastic shapes (Richter and Eggeling), through the presenting and 
unmasking of simple optical illusions (Duchamp), and lastly with the oblit- 
eration of accustomed depth while retaining the traditional photographic 
images (as we shall see in various strategies of Leger). 

The Surrealist cinema largely disappeared after Bunuel's L'Age d'Or 
(1930) to re-emerge thirteen years later in America, essentially trans- 
formed. The graphic cinema, on the other hand, continued its evolution 
with diminished force throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The coming of 
sound to film inspired several attempts to visualize music through cine- 
matic abstractions and to synchronize visual rhythms to music. 



The central figure in the transition from the European to the American 
graphic film was Len Lye. 2 A New Zealander, Lye became intrigued with 
the kinetic possibilities of art when he was an adolescent, as he elaborates 
in an interview in Film Culture 29: 

I had read that Constable had tried to paint clouds in motion 
and the Dadaists were experimenting with motion painting also. 
I had a paper route at that time, so I used to get up early and 
go off for a walk and try to sort out things about art. Then it 
hit me as I was looking at those darn sunrises, lit up clouds, 
why try to simulate motion in paintings of clouds or in after- 
image effects? Why not just do something that literally made 

Early in the 1920s he went to Australia to learn cartoon animation, 
but he did not make his first film until he moved to London in 1928. 
There he made Tusalava (Samoan for "things go full circle"), a black-and- 
white film combining his fascination with movement with the imagery of 
South Pacific primitive art, a life-long interest. Yet cartoon animation has 
played a very small part in Lye's most important contributions to the 
graphic cinema. In fact, in the act of rejecting cartoon procedures, with 
which films such as Richter's and Eggeling's had been made, he became 
the first film-maker to paint directly on top of film stock, thus shortcutting 
the photographic process. Although Colour Box (1935) was the first result 
of this direct method, Lye's experiments in hand-painting film go back to 
Australia and the mid-i92os. 

The direct application of paint to the surface of film transformed the 
dynamics of the graphic film. Color could be rendered more vivid than it 
could by the photographic process; the different kinds and densities of 
paint opened a range of texture hitherto ignored; and above all the prob- 
lems of shape, scale, and the illusions of perspective which the early 
graphic film-makers inherited from the painterly and photographic 
traditions could be bracketed by an imagery that remained flat on the plane 
of the screen and avoided geometrical contour. 

In Colour Box, a wavy, vertical line multiplies itself and interacts with 
circles and fields of dots against a background washed with paint. Al- 
though Lye avoids all indications of screen depth by having no movement 
into or out of the vanishing point, the lines and circles seem to move in 
front of the unshaped background paint, and both seem recessed slightly 
when stenciled letters, telling us to use parcel post, appear near the end 
and affirm a plane even closer to the literal screen than the painted plane. 
This use of block lettering recalls the similar employment of stencils in 
analytical cubism. 

Apparently Lye was more interested in expanding a vocabulary of dy- 
namic visual forms than in exploring the implications and possibilities of 


a cinema without photography; for in his next film, Kaleidoscope (1936) 
hand-painting becomes less important than stenciling. Dots, complex pat- 
terns, circles, lines, and arabesques crisscross the screen in muted colors. 
Again the shapes and colors hug the surface of the screen with no indi- 
cations of depth other than the shallow superimposition of some forms as 
they pass over one another. 

Lye never completely abandoned working with the raw surface of un- 
photographed film, but his evolution as a film-maker did not occur along 
the lines initiated by this startling invention. In Rainbow Dance and Trade 
Tattoo (both 1936), he combined some of his surface techniques with pho- 
tographed images of actuality. Although his reputation has been sustained 
by the invention of direct painting on film, Lye deserves equal credit as 
one of the great masters of montage. His specialty has been the jump-cut, 
an elliptical condensation of action achieved by eliminating middle shots 
so that the figure on the screen seems to jump forward along a prescribed 
course of action. 

Along with the combination of elliptically edited scenes of elementary 
actions and surface lines, dots, and shapes, Lye began to develop tech- 
niques of color separation. Through an intricate process of masking and 
combining negative and positive images in the printing laboratory, Lye 
could make one figure in a photographed scene assume one pure color and 
another figure in that same originally black-and-white shot take on a dif- 
ferent color. In doing so he achieved a strength of color his first films 
lacked, but only unhampered paint on film could create the lost textural 
range of the surface. 

In his later works Lye moved away from both color and the synthesis 
of techniques. Rhythm (1953) shows the assembly of a Ford in one minute 
of hundreds of jump-cuts. The film is black-and-white without any abstract 
surface texture save white holes punched out of the opening and ending 
shots of the exterior of the Ford plant. Having created a film purely ex- 
ploiting the jump-cut, he made another working only with the surface of 
unphotographed film. This time he scratched ideographic lines on black 
film stock. Free Radicals (1958) reduces and distills the dynamics of the 
hand-made film to a primitive kinetic dance of white lines and angles. The 
jaggedness of these meticulously executed scratches in an indexical evo- 
cation of the concentrated energy required to etch them onto film. The 
film-maker has described the quality of the movement as "spastic." Of his 
working method he has said: 

If I couldn't complete the etched line by forcing the needle to 
complete the design on the film, then the continuity of a dozen 
or so designs which preceded it would be lost. So, I wriggled my 
whole body to get a compressed feeling into my shoulders — try- 
ing to get a pent-up feeling of inexorable precision into the fin- 
gers of both hands which grasped the needle and, with a sudden 


2 35 

jump, pulled the needle through the celluloid and completed my 
design. 3 

When in the early 1940s Harry Smith made his first hand-painted 
films, he was unaware that the concept was not original with him; such is 
his claim, which the author believes. To the historian of cinema it would 
make little difference if Smith acted by invention or imitation, for his rep- 
utation is not bound to any proof of priority. The hand-painted films with 
which he began his career as a film-maker are the most remarkable ever 
achieved in that technique; and his subsequent films, both animated and 
photographed from actuality, sustain his stature as one of the central film- 
makers of the avant-garde tradition. 

With characteristic self-irony and hermetic allusions, he composed the 
following notes on his work for the catalogue of the Film-Makers' Co- 

My cinematic excreta is of four varieties: — batiked abstrac- 
tions made directly on film between 1939 and 1946; optically 
printed non-objective studies composed around 1950; semi- 
realistic animated collages made as part of my alchemical labors 
of 1957 to 1962; and chronologically superimposed photo- 
graphs of actualities formed since the latter year. All these 
works have been organized in specific patterns derived from the 
interlocking beats of the respiration, the heart and the EEG Al- 
pha component and should be observed together in order, or 
not at all, for they are valuable works, works that will live for- 
ever — they made me gray. 

no. 1: Hand-drawn animation of dirty shapes — the history of 
the geologic period reduced to orgasm length. (Approx. 
5 min.) 

no. 2: Batiked animation, etc. etc. The action takes place ei- 
ther inside the sun or in Zurich, Switzerland. (Approx. 
10 min.) 

no. 3: Batiked animation made of dead squares, the most com- 
plex hand-drawn film imaginable. (Approx. 10 min.) 

no. 4: Black-and-white abstractions of dots and grillworks 
made in a single night. (Approx. 6 min.) 

no. 5: Color abstraction. Homage to Oscar Fischinger — a se- 
quel to No. 4. (Approx. 6 min.) 

no. 6: Three-dimensional, optically printed, abstraction using 
glasses the color of Heaven & Earth. (Approx. 20 min.) 

no. 7: Optically printed Pythagoreanism in four movements 
supported on squares, circles, grillworks and triangles 
with an interlude concerning an experiment. (Approx. 
15 min.) 



no. 8: Black-and-white collage made up of clippings from 
19th Century ladies' wear catalogues and elocution 
books. The cat, the dog, the statue and the Hygrome- 
ter appear here for the first time. (Approx. 5 min.) 

no. 9: Color collage of biology books and 19th Century tem- 
perance posters. An attempt to reconstruct Capt. 
Cook's Tapa collection. (Approx. 10 min.) 

no. 10: An exposition of Buddhism and the Kaballa in the 
form of a collage. The final scene shows Aquatic 
mushrooms (not in No. 11) growing on the moon 
while the Hero and Heroine row by on a cerebrum. 
(Approx. 10 min.) 

no. 11: A commentary on and exposition of No. 10 synchro- 
nized to Monk's "Mysterioso." A famous film — availa- 
ble sooner or later from Cinema 16. (Approx. 4 min.) 

no. 12: A much expanded version of No. 8. The first part de- 
picts the heroine's toothache consequent to the loss of 
a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and trans- 
portation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposi- 
tion of the heavenly land in terms of Israel, Montreal 
and the second part depicts the return to earth from 
being eaten by Max Muller on the day Edward the 
Seventh dedicated the Great Sewer of London. (Ap- 
prox. 50 min.) 

no. 13: Fragments and tests of Shamanism in the guise of a 

children's story. This film, made with van Wolf, is per- 
haps the most expensive animated film ever made — the 
cost running well over ten thousand dollars a minute — 
wide screen, stereophonic sound of the ballet music 
from Faust. Production was halted when a major in- 
vestor (H. P.) was found dead under embarrassing con- 
ditions. (Approx. 3 hours) 
no. 14: Superimposed photography of Mr. Fleischman's 

butcher shop in New York, and the Kiowa around An- 
adarko, Oklahoma — with Cognate Material. The strip 
is dark at the beginning and end, light in the middle, 
and is structured 122333221. I honor it the most of 
my films, otherwise a not very popular one before 
1972. If the exciter lamp blows, play Bert Brecht's 
"Mahagonny." (Approx. 25 min.) 
For those who are interested in such things: Nos. 1 to 5 were 
made under pot; No. 6 with schmeck (it made the sun shine) 
and ups; No. 7 with cocaine and ups; Nos. 8 to 12 with almost 
anything, but mainly deprivation, and 13 with green pills from 
Max Jacobson, pink pills from Tim Leary, and vodka; No. 14 
with vodka and Italian Swiss white port. 4 



The continuity of Harry Smith's cinema is remarkable, all the more so 
because of its variety. The shifts in technique and the swerves in intention 
of each new film seem grounded in the principles of the previous film. 
After the initial attempt at a freely drawn hand-painted film (No. 1), he 
made two progressively more complex, batiked, geometrical animations 
(Nos. 2 and 3), colored by spray paint and dyes, also directly applied to 
the film. Then he began a series of photographed abstractions, first in 
black-and-white (No. 4), then in color (Nos. 5 and 7), with quantum leaps 
of intricacy at each stage. Nos. 10 and 11 integrate collage and fragmen- 
tary animated narrative into the spatial and color fields established in the 
earlier films. That narrative tendency expanded in No. 12 and would have 
reached an even greater elaboration had No. 13 been completed according 
to his plan. With the abandonment of that film, Smith turned from ani- 
mation to the actual world for his imagery, but he maintained a plastic 
control over what he filmed by means of superimposition (No. 14) and 
the use of a kaleidoscope (The Tin Woodsman's Dream, second part). 

The regular curve of this progression, describing in its course several 
versions of hermeticism from Neo-Platonic formalism through ritual magic 
to shamanism traces a graph of evolving concerns and reveals an amazing 
patience, at odds with the language but not the sense of the film-maker's 
comments on his work. Harry Smith was a practicing hermeticist. As much 
as his films share the central concerns of the American avant-garde cinema 
and incarnate its historical development, they separate themselves and de- 
mand attention as aspects of Smith's other work. He divided his time 
among film-making, painting (less in recent years), iconology (he had a 
formidable collection of Ukrainian Easter eggs and had spent years prac- 
ticing Northwest Indian string figures in preparation for books on these 
symbolic cosmologies), music (his reputation as an authority on folk music 
matches his reputation as a film-maker among experts), anthropology 
(Folkways issued his recordings and notes on the peyote ritual of the Ki- 
owa), and linguistics (as an amateur, but with intense interest). 

Since childhood Smith sustained an interest in the occult and in the 
machinery of illusionism: 

My father gave me a blacksmith shop when I was maybe twelve; 
he told me I should convert lead into gold. He had me build all 
these things like models of the first Bell telephone, the original 
electric light bulb, and perform all sorts of historical experi- 
ments. . . . Very early my parents got me interested in projecting 
things. 5 

His father also initiated his interest in drawing by teaching him to make 
a geometrical representation of the Cabalistic tree of life. Smith even spoke 
of Giordano Bruno as the inventor of the cinema in an hilariously aggres- 
sive lecture at Yale in 1965, quoting the thesis of De Immenso, Innumer- 
abilibus et Infigurabilibus that there are an infinite number of universes, 



each possessing a similar world with some slight differences — a hand 
raised in one, lowered in another — so that the perception of motion is an 
act of the mind swiftly choosing a course among an infinite number of 
these "freeze frames," and thereby animating them. We see that Smith 
regards his work in the historical tradition of magical illusionism, extend- 
ing at least back to Robert Fludd who used mirrors to animate books, and 
Athanasius Kircher who cast spells with a magic lantern. 

In an interview in the Village Voice, he offered the following unex- 
pected evaluation of his work as a film-maker among film-makers. 

I think I'm the third best film producer in the country. I think 
Andy Warhol is the best. Kenneth Anger is the second best. And 
now I've decided I'm the third best. There was a question in my 
mind whether Brakhage or myself was the third best, but now I 
think I am. 6 

The smoothness of the diachronic outline of Smith's development as 
a film-maker reflects the ease with which the formal and the hermetic poles 
meet in any given film along that graph. In the ensemble of his work, 
neoplasticism converges with Surrealism so undramatically that we are 
forced to see that the distances among the theosophy of suprematism, the 
Neoplatonism of Kandinsky and Mondrian, and the alchemical and Cab- 
alistic metaphysics of Surrealism were not as great as among their respec- 
tive spatial and tropic strategies. Harry Smith already occupied the new 
theoretical center where neoplasticism and Surrealism might converge. 

The hermetic artist is one who finds the purification, or the formal 
reduction, of his art coincident with his quest for a magical center that all 
arts, and all consciousnesses, share. The paradox of hermetic cinema which 
we encounter in the later films of both Kenneth Anger and Harry Smith 
is that the closer it comes to self-definition the further it moves from au- 
tonomy, the more it seems to involve itself in allusion, arcane reference, 
obscurity. While most of his contemporaries found first the dream and 
then the myth to be the prime metaphors for cinema's essence, Smith, 
following the same path, posited a moving geometry as its essence before 
he joined the others in a move to mythopoeia. 

He defined the geometry of cinema in terms of its potential for com- 
plexity rather than reduction to simplicity. His early films are progressively 
more intricate. Yet his first film is remarkably sophisticated in its range of 

No. 1, the most eccentric of Harry Smith's animations, utilizes a prin- 
ciple of imbalance and unpredictability as a source of visual tension, which 
is reflected in several aspects of the film's imagery and form. Its freely 
drawn, Arp-like figures resist precise geometry, and the base itself, when 
it becomes solid, has a tendency to leave a band of a different color at the 
right edge of the screen. Hard-edged squares are integrated rather uneasily 
into this context of fluctuation and eccentricity. A vibration occurs when 



they appear at the beginning, in the middle, and just before the conclusion 
of the film. 

Positions and colors alternate quickly, jumping within the frame, as 
two squares move toward each other along a virtual diagonal, as in Eg- 
geling's film. Shapes change as soon as they are formed; amorphous circles 
turn into squares which open up to contain circles again. Only the original 
hard-edged squares resist transformation as they fall again in the middle 
of the film. 

The instability of the base, which changes color, becomes texturally 
settled, and can dissolve into splatterings, reflects the ambiguity of the 
outlined forms which occasionally transform outside to inside. The film- 
maker's reference to "dirty shapes" in this film must refer to the vaguely 
phallic wedge in the middle of the film, which becomes a triangle with a 
hole through which a circle and a soft, again somewhat phallic, rectangle 
pass. Once the ground turns into the figure in the manner of Richter's 
Rhythmus 21: a horizontal band expands in both directions, but before it 
wipes the previous base away it bends upon itself as if to become a new 
circle. As the outer shell dissolves, circles form within circles until the 
distinction between a circle and a square weakens. Four soft triangles, with 
holes in them, come together to suggest a rectangle. In the final appearance 
of the rigid squares, they again overlap to create a negative space, and 
they make the most complex set of variations in the film. 

The difficulty of adequately describing No. 1 reflects the excessive in- 
stability of its imagery. Changes continually occur on at least two levels, 
that of figure and that of base; there are often two or more simultaneous 
developments on both levels, with perhaps one point of synchronization 
between one figural and one base change, while all else is asynchronous. 
This instability, which always seems about to resolve itself on the level of 
the figure, actually finds its satisfying conclusion, its unexpected telos, in 
the two flashes, first eight frames long, then eleven, of the irregular yellow 
and red shape — the chromatic climax of the film — just before the end. 

In Nos. 2 and 3 Harry Smith abandoned the hand-drawn figure. He 
concentrated on the exhaustive use of the batiking principle by which he 
inserted the hard-edged squares into his first film. As he describes it in an 
interview in Film Culture Reader, that process involved placing "come 
clean" dots on 35mm film, spraying color on it, then covering the strip 
with vaseline before removing the dots. Another spraying will give two 
colors, one inside and one outside the circle. Of course the process can be 
multiplied with different colors. 

This shift of technique implied a new dynamics for the films. In No. 
1 the film-maker recognized the essential instability of a drawn line which 
has to repeat itself twenty-four times a second. He elaborated the whole 
form of his film out of this basic instability, exaggerating it and mimicking 
it in structural and textural ways. The batiking process removed the es- 
sential vibration of line. Smith responded to this fact with more rigorous 
rhythmic form, a heightened centrality of imagery, a smoother balance of 


colors, and a strict reliance on basic geometrical figures. In No. 2 in par- 
ticular he explored the use of offscreen space implicit in the opening and 
in several moments of No. i. By opening with and predominantly using 
motion from the top to the bottom of the screen, he introduced a sense of 
gravity around which the offscreen vectors are organized. 

Several variations on the manifestation and rhythmic movement of the 
circle alternate through the film: (i) a circle defines itself out of the wid- 
ening of a section by the expanding of two radii or disappears by inversion; 
(2) one circle or a phalanx of circles crosses the screen vertically or hori- 
zontally; (3) a circle collapses from its circumference inward or expands 
outward as far as or beyond the rectangle of the screen; (4) a circle splits 
into two semicircles to reveal another circle behind it; (5) fixed concentric 
circles; (6) a small circle turns within a larger one with a continual tan- 
gency of circumferences. 

The reliance on primary colors emphasizes the purity and regularity 
of the film's form. By making this directly on film with the batiked process 
rather than animating it from drawings as is possible, Harry Smith main- 
tained the vibrancy of directly applied color with its frame-by-frame fluc- 
tuations which otherwise would be lost. There is also a minimum of ar- 
bitrary blending and/or an absence of color at the points where the circles 
meet the base. This and a discreet amount of flaking, especially on the 
inlaid squares, give the film a textural immediacy. With the geometric reg- 
ularity of the circles and the structural regularity of the film's construction, 
Smith has created a form in opposition to the color's irregularity. The 
result is more successful than the opposite tactic employed in No. 1. 

When Smith says that "the action takes place either inside the sun or 
in Zurich, Switzerland," he is alluding to the hermetic source of the circle, 
the sun, and suggesting that the film might also take place in the mind of 
Carl Jung, then living in Zurich. His subsequent claim that No. 3 is the 
most complex hand-painted film ever made is sustained by its comparison 
with anything I have seen in this mode. The most ambitious aspects of 
No. 1 and 2 are merely preludes to the textural, rhythmic, and structural 
complexity of No. 3. It is not difficult to believe the film-maker when he 
says that it took him several years of daily work to complete it. 

It falls into three sections. In the first a hatch made of four bars (two 
horizontal, two vertical, crossed over each other like a grid for playing tic- 
tac-toe) gradually turns into a field of squares, which in turn reveal a group 
of overlapping diamonds which are central to the second section. There 
the diamonds undergo a number of changes amid expanding rectangles 
(characteristic of the first part of the film) and circles (characteristic of the 
last part). The final third uses the image of the expanding circle to mount 
a spectacular climax integrating the previous strategies and images of the 

This time the film-maker makes little use of offscreen space; he organ- 
izes much of the movement within the film in terms of the illusionary depth 


of the screen. Images recede into and explode out of a deep center. Em- 
phasis is placed on the relative positions of foreground and background 
figures. The changes of color are more complex than in No. z; solid hues 
rest beside clearly defined areas of splattered paint and when figures over- 
lap their common areas take on different colors. Finally, different rhythmic 
structures mesh with a complexity equal to the most elaborate achieve- 
ments of the entire graphic film tradition. 

By the time he completed this film, Harry Smith had established con- 
tacts with other film-makers, both in the San Francisco area where he was 
working and in Los Angeles. It was at the same time that Frank Stauffacher 
and Richard Foster founded Art in Cinema, where avant-garde films, both 
those from the Europe of two decades earlier and new works, had their 
first rigorous screenings on the American West Coast. Although Smith con- 
tinued to paint throughout this period, he came to identify himself with 
the emerging cinema. In fact, when Stauffacher and Foster split up and it 
looked as if Art in Cinema would fail (as it did), he tried for a brief time 
to program new films for it. It is nearly impossible to pin Smith down on 
specific dates within this period of the late 1940s and equally difficult to 
fix his movements precisely from other sources. Nevertheless we know that 
he worked in San Francisco and Berkeley during this time and that during 
this period he met John and James Whitney of Los Angeles, who were to 
have a decisive influence on him and later on Jordan Belson. 

Between 1943 and 1944 the Whitney brothers had made Five Film 
Exercises on home-made animating and sound composing equipment. One 
of their highest ambitions was to produce "audio-visual music" or "color 
music" by the synchronization of abstract transformations to electronic 
sounds and by the utilization of basically musical forms for the overall 
construction of their films. In one article of 1944, they refer to Bauer, a 
source of inspiration they shared with Smith; in another, of 1945, they 
speak of Mondrian and Duchamp (in so far as he urged mechanical re- 
production over hand-made objects of art) as primary inspirations. Their 
early films show hard-edged or sometimes slightly out of focus figures in 
a state of continual transformation and movement about the screen. A 
shape that seems to curve three-dimensionally will change to make its flat- 
ness apparent (Film Exercise 1); the whole screen or half the screen will 
flash with color flickers (Film Exercise 2 and 3); and behind geometrical 
variations; a reciprocal play of movement into and out of screen depth 
will structure a film (Film Exercise 4); or a process of echo and recapitu- 
lation in different colors will be an organizing principle (Film Exercise 5). 
Their own notes for the catalogue of Art in Cinema most clearly define 
their aspirations: 


Begins with a three beat announcement, drawn out in time, 
which thereafter serves as an imageless transition figure dividing 



the sections of the film. Each new return of this figure is con- 
densed more and more in time. Finally it is used in reverse to 
conclude the film . . . 

This film was produced entirely by manipulation of paper 
cut-outs and shot at regular motion picture camera speed in- 
stead of hand animating one frame at a time. The entire film, 
two hundred feet in length, was constructed from an economical 
twelve feet of original image material. 


These two very short fragments were also made from paper cut- 
outs. At this time we were developing a means of controlling 
this procedure with the use of pantographs. While we were sat- 
isfied with the correlation of sound and image, progress with the 
material had begun to lag far behind our ideas. These two were 
left unfinished in order to begin the films which follow. 


Entire film divided into four consecutive chosen approaches, the 
fourth being a section partially devoted to a reiteration and ex- 
tension of the material of the first and second sections. 
section one: Movement used primarily to achieve spatial 
depth. An attempt is made to delay sound in a proportional 
relationship to the depth or distance of its corresponding im- 
age in the screen space. That is, a near image is heard sooner 
than one in the distance. Having determined the distant and 
near extremes of the visual image, this screen space is assigned 
a tonal interval. The sound then moves along a melodic line 
in continuous glissando back and forth slowing down as it 
approaches its point of alternation direction . . . 
section TWO: Consists of four short subjects in natural se- 
quence. They are treated to a development in terms alternately 
of contraction and expansion or halving and doubling of their 
rhythm. Sound and visual elements held in strict synchroniza- 
tion. . . . 

section three: A fifteen second visual sequence is begun every 
five seconds after the fashion of canon form in music. This 
constitutes the leading idea, a development of which is ex- 
tended into three different repetitions. This section is built 
upon the establishment of complex tonal masses which op- 
pose complex image masses. The durations of each are pro- 
gressively shortened. The image masses are progressively sim- 
plified and their spatial movement increasingly rapid. 

section four: Begins with a statement in sound and image 
which at its conclusion is inverted and retrogresses to its be- 



ginning. An enlarged repetition of this leads to the reiterative 
conclusion of the film. 


Opens with a short canonical statement of a theme upon which 
the entire film is constructed. Followed by a rhythmical treat- 
ment of the beginning and ending images of this theme in alter- 
nation. This passage progresses by a quickening of rhythm, in- 
creasing in complexity and color fluctuation . . . 

A second section begins after a brief pause. Here an attempt 
is made to pose the same image theme of the first section in 
deep film screen space. As the ending image recedes after an ac- 
cented frontal flash onto the screen it unfolds itself repeatedly 
leaving the receding image to continue on smaller and smaller. 7 

Harry Smith credits the Whitneys both with teaching him the tech- 
niques of photographic animation and with helping him to formulate a 
theoretical view of cinema. 

He remained faithful to the circle, the triangle, and the square or rec- 
tangle as the essential forms of visual geometry. Before the black-and-white 
imagery of No. 4 begins, Smith pans the camera over a painting of his 
from the same period. The movements on the painting are in color. In 
contrast to his film work, the painting uses organic, bulb-like forms rather 
than rigid geometrical figures. In Film Culture he described this painting: 

It is a painting to a tune by Dizzy Gillespie called "Manteca." 
Each stroke in the painting represents a certain note on the re- 
cording. If I had the record, I could project the painting as a 
slide and point to a certain thing. 8 

The possibility of translating music into images is another part of the her- 
metic worldview. In practice Harry Smith's use of sound with film has 
been very problematic. The initial three painted films were made to be 
shown silently. After they were finished, the film-maker had the following 
experience: "I had a really great illumination the first time I heard Dizzy 
Gillespie play. I had gone there very high, and I literally saw all kinds of 
color flashes. It was at that point that I realized music could be put to my 
films." He claims that he then cut down No. 2 from an original length of 
over thirty minutes to synchronize it with Gillespie's "Guacha Guero." 
Neither the original long version nor the synchronized print survive. 

Smith was notoriously self-destructive. The loss of several important 
films from his "Great Work" attests to this. He proved in films like No. 
11 and No. 12 that he could use both music and sound effects meticu- 
lously, and in the case of the later film, with genius. His ability in handling 
sound makes all the more alarming the extreme casualness with which he 





Geometrical abstraction in (a) Harry Smith's No. 7 
and (b) No. 5: Circular Tensions. 

put the Beatles' first album with an anthology of his early films, Early 
Abstractions, for distribution. It seems as if he wanted to obscure the mon- 
umentality of his achievement in painting and animating film by simply 
updating the sound track. 

No. 4 combines camera movement with superimposition to create a 
dance of white circles and squares against a black background. Because of 
the absence of any perspective, the bobbing and swinging of the camera 
is translated by the eye into a movement of lights within or across the 
screen. By altering his speed of movement, the distance from the object, 
and the direction of the camera, he can elaborate a formal interplay of 
counterpoint, scale change, and off-screen orientation out of a simple grid 
of twenty-four white squares and a field of circular dots. 



No. 5, entitled Circular Tensions, extends the use of the moving cam- 
era and superimposition into color and geometry. Against a black back- 
ground a green square appears next to a red circle and triangle. Slowly 
they begin to move around and over one another. Then an eccentrically 
composed blue spiral appears dimly in superimposition, giving an illusory 
depth to the black space behind the geometrical figures. Numerous bright 
yellow lights sweep across the screen in different directions, leaving in their 
wake a bounding red circle. Its scale remains constant as the camera zooms 
in and out on superimposed rectangles. 

In the late 1940s Harry Smith and Jordan Belson invited Hilla Rebay 
of the Museum of Non-Objective Art (now the Guggenheim Museum) to 
see their paintings when she was in San Francisco. That visit ultimately 
resulted in a grant from the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation during 
19 5 1 for Smith to begin work on No. 7. When he moved to New York 
at the completion of the film, he was again helped by Hilla Rebay and 
given a studio in the Guggenheim Museum. At that time the Guggenheim 
Museum specialized in collecting the works of Kandinsky and Bauer. Of 
all of his films, No. 7 comes the closest to animating a painting of Kan- 
dinsky in his geometrical style of the 1920s. 

To make this film, Smith set up a primitive, back-screen projection 
situation that worked with astonishing precision. One machine projected 
black-and-white images on a translucent screen. On the other side of the 
screen a 16mm camera re-recorded them. A wheel of color filters in front 
of the camera was used to determine the hue of a figure or a background. 
By keeping an accurate record of where any pattern was recorded on the 
film strip, the film-maker could make elaborate synchronous movements 
by means of several layers of superimposition. Most of the visual tropes 
of No. 7 derive from earlier animations of Smith's; but here they attain 
their apogee of intricacy and color control. No use is made of offscreen 
space. Illusory depth orients the entire film, but, unlike the earlier films, 
there is a tension here between images which have their center of gravity 
in the absolute center of the screen and sets of images with two or more 
lateral centers. 

The film-maker's note divides the film into four parts. In the first, if 
my division is accurate, the following tropes are dominant: (1) colored 
bars appear vertically, horizontally, or diagonally against the background 
and widen to the edges of the screen until they become the backdrop; (z) 
rings within rings of the same or different colors expand from the center 
of the screen; (3) two laterally placed circles, one larger than the other, 
emerge and recede alternately from two points of gravity, exchanging their 
relative scales in each alternation; (4) a central black circle enlarges with 
a vaguely defined red corona; (5) circles and rings, in different colors, come 
out of screen depth simultaneously, and the area of their overlapping takes 
on new colors; (6) an expanding square alternates between being black 
within against a diminishing colored space and colored within against a 
black space; (7) amid these intricate variations of orderly patterns, eccen- 


trically placed squares, circles, and squares containing circles appear; (8) 
different parts of the screen change at different speeds. A deep red accents 
the first section. 

In the second section the tonality shifts to a bluish-green with consid- 
erable use of red and white. Here the triangle makes its first appearance, 
initially in sequential sets of four wedges exploding outward, later with as 
many as sixteen wedges in eight concentric rings. Generally, the placement 
of figures is more irregular than in the earlier section and the rhythmic 
interactions even more complex, because the central organizing pulse itself 
can suddenly fluctuate. When black circles with colored coronas appear, 
complex explosions of rings of wedges are syncopated within them. As the 
film progresses, the pace of the explosions increases. 

In the third section the importance of the circle diminishes; it only 
appears at the end. The square and the rectangle take the center now. All 
over the screen there are squares, grids, and bars. There is no break in the 
continual blending of different kinds of grids and squares throughout this 
section. This is the most decentralized part of the film. Throughout it, there 
is a periodic but repressed background of exploding wedges. Towards the 
end of the section a dialectic establishes itself between eccentricity and 
centrality, in which the shift of axes of the wedges plays a decisive role. 

The final quarter of the film derives its pulse from the continual ex- 
pansion of rings from the center of the screen. In opposition to this dom- 
inant trope: (1) fast moving sets of radiating rings appear eccentrically; (z) 
circles grow out of pie-like sections (as in No. 2) and reduce themselves 
to sections; (3) squares emerge, turn into grids, and dissolve into blackness; 
(4) a single red triangle wanders around the screen and disappears in its 
center with an explosion of wedges; and (5) squares appear within squares. 

After finishing No. 7, Harry Smith moved from San Francisco to New 
York. There he began to make collage films. Unfortunately, all we know 
of No. 8 and No. 9 are his laconic notes. By the time he made No. 10 
and No. 11, which are versions of the same film, he had a highly developed 
collage animation technique in color. Many of the formal operations of 
the earlier films, especially No. 7, were incorporated into these two films. 
Of the several modes of tension in these works, the relationship between 
the screen as an enclosed world and offscreen space is particularly impor- 
tant. Similarly, the dialectics between a flat plane of action and illusory 
depth, between collage animation and abstract convulsions of the whole 
image, between gravity and the screen as an open field of movement, be- 
tween sequences of transformation and abrupt change, derive from and 
elaborate upon the strategies of his earlier films. 

Both No. 10 and No. 11 are pointedly hermetic. They describe anal- 
ogies among Tarot cards, Cabalistic symbolism, Indian chiromancy and 
dancing, Buddhist mandalas, and Renaissance alchemy. The process of 
animation itself, with its continual transformations, provides the vehicle 
for this giant equation. Surrealism's version of the hermetic enters in at 
least twice, rupturing the logic of the occult analogies through unexpected 



and irrational juxtapositions. The first of these inclusions is a postman in 
a child's wagon, who plays an important role in the film because of his 
resistance to being transformed. The second is the comic appearance of a 
grimacing woman, looking out of a window near the end of both films. 
The presence of such imagery, which jars the consistency of the film, pro- 
vides yet another dialectic and paradoxically enriches the hermeticism it is 
confounding by distancing it from the rational. 

A detailed description of these films, shot as they are, would require 
a volume. So many of the fleeting collages are composed of internal sub- 
collages, associating within a single shape the iconography of different 
cultures, that several pages would be needed to describe each one's pres- 
ence, which lasts on the screen perhaps a second, before one could go on 
to the shape it changes into. Beyond that there is a welter of images and 
symbols moving around or behind the central image at many points in the 
film. In short, Harry Smith is utilizing cinema's potential, through its speed, 
to confound the perception of the spectator with a profusion of complex 

No. 10 begins with snow crystals falling through the frame. They be- 
come a molecular cluster with an abstract circumference of outward point- 
ing red wedges. The atoms of the molecule separate to become the tree of 
life, an outlined figure with ten points which is the central Cabalistic di- 
agram. A bird lands on it, turning it into a skeleton with various totemic 
masks. The most dynamic and most often employed illusion of depth in 
the film emerges from the creation of a recessed room or theater whose 
walls are receding planes of different colors. As on a stage, it looks as if 
a fourth wall has been removed so we can see within. 

The first appearance of this theater coincides with the breakup of the 
skeleton and its reformation as a masked shaman, who floats upward 
through the ceiling and off-screen, leaving the space empty for a moment 
before it fades out. Soon an athanor (a basic piece of alchemical equip- 
ment) encloses an unsupported flame in the center of the room. In the 
earlier films an act of enclosure, of circles within a square, for example, 
almost always initiated a chain of transformations of the forms within the 
framing device at a rhythm all its own. So too here, enclosures generate 
interior metamorphoses. The fire constantly changes its shape, becoming 
birds and alchemical symbols, while the legged mask continues to circle 
the stage. 

Against a black background an Indian dancer floats down from the 
top of the screen on a pill box. An entire constellation of symbols fuses 
into the back of a playing card. When the dancer crosses in front of it, 
she leaves her shadow on the card. Her dance is synchronously reflected 
in the shadow. Although she will soon be transformed, her image will 
reappear again, for she is the central female presence in No. 10. 

Throughout the transformations of the dancer, her shadow remains 
on the back of the card. The shadow dances by itself, sending out a light- 
ning stroke which creates a postman on a red wagon. He will become the 


central male figure of the film, the dancer's counterpart. At the completion 
of the dance the shadow becomes the dancer, and she and the postman, 
both inscribed in rings, orbit one another, while a series of rays emanate 
from the center of the screen. 

The spatial dialectic of the film now becomes more intricate. Layers 
parallel to the plane of the screen tend to move or fracture to reveal an- 
other plane immediately behind it. This happens, for instance, when an 
object floats down-screen revealing the postman behind it. But when he 
tries to reach the dancer, the theater reconstitutes itself, now subdivided 
into barriers which frustrate his pursuit. 

The moon descends from covering the whole screen to an arc with a 
black spot above it. From behind flies an orbiting planet, followed by a 
stork. Then a mushroom and the Rosetta Stone grow out of the moon. 
The dancer steps from in back of one stone; from the other the postman. 
They step behind these objects again and reappear as doubles: two iden- 
tical dancers and two postmen. 

The dancers and postmen join hands beside and on top of each other 
in chiastic order, while the moon descends, leaving them floating in space. 
In quick succession they change into a tree of life; a bird above three 
serpents holding the sun, the moon, and the earth; and a headless man, 
standing on the earth holding the sun and moon in his hands while small 
squares gush from his neck. He becomes a smaller version of the moon 
than the one that has just descended. A Tibetan demon appears behind 
that moon and carries it away in his mouth, while the couple float by on 
a cerebrum, leaving a conch, which turns into the end title. 

Most of the imagery of No. 11, or Mirror Animations, is identical to 
that of No. 10. The film differs essentially in that it is carefully synchro- 
nized to Thelonius Monk's "Mysterioso." Most of the significant scenes 
of the earlier film recur here with slight variations; the dance of the Indian 
and her shadow, the pursuit within the subdivided theater, the chiromantic 
variations, and the grimacing woman in the window, which has become 
a picture frame all appear in approximately the same sequence. The tree 
of life, the snake, the symbols of the sun, moon, Hermes and Neptune 
within the pillbox, the Tarot cards, and the athanor present themselves in 
altered contexts. The Buddhist and Tibetan imagery, as well as the entire 
end of the film from the appearance of the moon on, are absent. 

The most prominent innovation in No. 11, a priestess dressed in white 
who is created at the beginning of the film when lightning strikes a snow- 
flake, generates rhythmic and structural differences. Her priestly gestures 
are synchronized to the pulse of Monk's music. Her centrality at the be- 
ginning and end of the film finds reinforcement in regular movements of 
figures and triangles of light around all four sides of the screen. The trans- 
formations occur within the metrical pattern established by the movements 
of her arms, even when she is not on the screen. Her presence and the way 
she brackets the whole film diminish the roles of the dancer and the post- 



Despite some elaborations on the spatial strategies of No. 10, such as 
a scene in which the snake wraps itself around the back of the recessed 
theater and snatches a figure within it, No. 11 underplays the dialectic of 
depth and plane, so important in the earlier film. There are less convulsive 
changes in the depicted screen space. The whole film seems to move more 
slowly, and the dazzling flood of imagery is somewhat chastened. 

This chastening and the presence of the priestess as the mediator and 
controller of the operations of the film forecast the radical jump in style 
to No. 12. This film, sometimes called The Magic Feature or Heaven and 
Earth Magic, is Harry Smith's most ambitious and most difficult work. 
Although it is particularly difficult to assign dates to the animated films 
he made in New York, No. 12 seems to have occupied him through most 
of the 1950s, especially toward the end of that decade. 

The original conception of this film exemplifies the myth of the ab- 
solute film in its expansive form. The hour-long version that can be seen 
today is but a fragment of the original plan, but even so, it is among the 
very highest achievements of the American avant-garde cinema and one of 
the central texts of its mythopoeic phase. 

In the interview published in Film Culture, the film-maker describes 
the plan for the whole film: 

I must say that I'm amazed, after having seen the black-and- 
white film (#12) last night, at the labor that went into it. It is 
incredible that I had enough energy to do it. Most of my mind 
was pushed aside into some sort of theoretical sorting of the 
pieces, mainly on the basis that I have described: First, I col- 
lected the pieces out of old catalogues and books and whatever; 
then made up file cards of all possible combinations of them; 
then, I spent maybe a few months trying to sort the cards into 
logical order. A script was made for that. All the script and the 
pieces were made for a film at least four times as long. There 
were wonderful masks and things cut out. Like when the dog 
pushes the scene away at the end of the film, instead of the title 
"end" what is really there is a transparent screen that has a can- 
dle burning behind it on which a cat fight begins — shadow 
forms of cats begin fighting. Then, all sorts of complicated ef- 
fects; I had held these off. The radiations were to begin at this 
point. Then Noah's Ark appears. There were beautiful scratch- 
board drawings, probably the finest drawings I ever made — re- 
ally pretty. Maybe 200 were made for that one scene. Then 
there's a graveyard scene, when the dead are all raised again. 
What actually happens at the end of the film is everybody's put 
in a teacup, because all kinds of horrible monsters came out of 
the graveyard, like animals that folded into one another. Then 
everyone gets thrown in a teacup, which is made out of a head, 
and stirred up. This is the Trip to Heaven and the Return, then 



the Noah's Ark, then The Raising of the Dead, and finally the 
Stirring of Everyone in a Teacup. It was to be in four parts. The 
script was made up for the whole works on the basis of sorting 
pieces. It was exhaustingly long in its original form. When I say 
that it was cut, mainly what was cut out was, say, instead of the 
little man bowing and then standing up, he would stay bowed 
down much longer in the original. The cutting that was done 
was really a correction of timing. It's better in its original form. 9 

Although the film was shot in black-and-white, he built a projector with 
color filters that could change the tint of the images. Furthermore, the 
whole film was to be projected through a series of masking slides which 
would transform the shape of the screen. The slides take the form of im- 
portant images within the film, such as a watermelon or an egg. Thus the 
entire movement would be enclosed within the projection of the slide. A 
different filter could determine the color of the surrounding slides. The 
whole apparatus functioned only once. In the late 1950s or early 1960s 
he presented the film for potential backers at Steinway Hall in New York. 
He would have liked to have installed seats in the form of the slide im- 
ages — a watermelon seat, an egg seat, etc. — with an electrically controlled 
mechanism that would have changed the colors and the slides in accor- 
dance with the movements of the spectators in their seats. Lacking the 
extravagant means necessary to achieve this, he manipulated the changes 
by hand. 

Despite the multiplicity of their references and obscure allusions Nos. 
10 and 11 offer easier access to the viewer than No. 12. Here Smith avoids 
historical iconography, with the possible exception of the universally un- 
derstood skeleton. The form of the film evokes hermetic maneuvers, which 
are all the more distanced because of their abstraction and lack of speci- 
ficity. The tone of the film seems to call for a close reading which the form 
frustrates. Furthermore, the investigation of his sources, which he alludes 
to obliquely in his note on the film, opens up seemingly fruitful approaches 
to the film without ever providing satisfying insights. 

The note veers from an elliptical description of the film's images to 
allusions about its sources. When he writes, "Next follows an elaborate 
exposition of the heavenly land in terms of Israel, Montreal and the second 
part depicts the return to earth from being eaten by Max Muller on the 
day Edward the Seventh dedicated the Great Sewer of London," he is 
deliberately obscuring the film with hints about it. By Israel he means the 
Cabala, particularly the three books translated by MacGregor Mathers as 
The Kabbalah Unveiled: "The Book of Concealed Mystery," "The Greater 
Holy Assembly," and "The Lesser Holy Assembly." Here the Cabalists 
interpret the tree of life in terms of the body of God, with intricate and 
detailed descriptions of features, members, configurations of the beard, and 
so on. 


The reference to Montreal, he later explained, indicates the parallel 
influence of Dr. Wildner Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute, 
whose extensive open brain operations on epileptics are described in Ep- 
ilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain (Little, Brown, 
Boston, 1954). Several aspects of Penfield's book intrigued Smith: the hal- 
lucinations of the patients under brain surgery; the topology and geogra- 
phy of the cerebral cortex; and the distribution and juxtaposition of ner- 
vous centers. His occasional remark that No. iz takes place in the fissure 
of Silvius, one of the major folds in the brain, is another allusion to Pen- 

A photograph of Max Muller, the nineteenth-century philologist and 
editor of The Sacred Books of the East, actually appears in the film. What 
Smith does not say is that this is the only face, out of several, which has 
a specific reference. Naturally, Smith's identification of this figure, which 
has a privileged place in the film, leads us to wonder, fruitlessly, who the 
other Victorian visages might be. 

Finally, the allusion to the day the London sewers were inaugurated 
turns out to refer to the cover story of an illustrated magazine that pro- 
vided many of the elements of the collage. The very choice of late- 
nineteenth-century engravings as the materials for his collage brings to 
mind the influence of Max Ernst's books, La Femme 100 Tetes and Une 
Semaine de Bonte. As we shall see, there are other, structural links with 
Ernst in this film. 

The broadest outline of the "action" of No. iz agrees with the film- 
maker's ironic note. As in No. 10, there are two main characters, a man 
and a woman; but here the man assumes the role of the priestess from No. 
11, not that of the postman. Although Smith has described him as having 
the same function as the prop-mover in traditional Japanese theater, his 
continual manipulations in the alchemical context of No. iz, coupled with 
his almost absolute resistance to change when everything else, including 
the heroine, is under constant metamorphosis, elevates him to the status 
of a magus. According to the argument of the film, he injects her with a 
magical potion while she sits in a diabolical dentist's chair. She rises to 
heaven and becomes fragmented. The "elaborate exposition of the heav- 
enly land" occurs while the magus attempts a series of operations to put 
her back together. He does not succeed until after they are eaten by the 
giant head of a man (Max Muller), and they are descending to earth in 
an elevator. Their arrival coincides with an obscure celebration, seen in 
scatological imagery (the Great Sewer), in which a climatic recapitulation 
of the journey blends into an ending which is the exact reversal of the 
opening shots. 

The reader of Dr. Penfield might identify the injection of the heroine 
and the subsequent explosion of her cranium with the effects of open brain 
surgery on the conscious patient. Since the operation is painless, after a 
local anesthetic has been applied to the surface of the skull, Penfield had 

(a) Harry Smith's No. 12: The initial scene. 

(b) The ascent to heaven on a dentist's chair. 

(c) The skeleton juggling a baby in the central tableau of 

(d) Max Muller casts a spell on the Magus. 

(e) The return to the initial scene. 




his patients talk while he probed their brains with his surgical needle. 
Individual patients' visions, memories, sensory illusions, and motor reac- 
tions when particular areas of their brains were touched were recorded by 
Penfield in numerous case histories. 

A significant case of the fusion of a religious cosmology with mental 
disorder would be Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Ill- 
ness. 10 Harry Smith first brought this book to my attention in a context 
unrelated to No. 12, but later he referred to the first tableau after the 
ascent as "Schreber's heaven." In the book, a well educated, influential 
German jurist vividly describes two periods of extreme paranoia in 1884 
and 1893. The text is neither clinical nor apocalyptic. Although Schreber 
sees himself as mentally disturbed, he presents his fantasies as metaphysical 
revelations and himself as the privileged martyr to these insights. In es- 
sence, his thesis is that God attracts human nerves to the "forecourts of 
heaven." Among his numerous paranoid hallucinations were the ideas that 
he had contact on the nerve plane with other people, which they refused 
to admit in the flesh; that his stomach had been replaced with an inferior 
one; and that the boundaries of male and female were confused within 
him. Freud wrote a psychoanalytical study of the book, finding in it a 
psychosis based on homosexual fears. Harry Smith seems to be interested 
in it, as in all psychological phenomena, because of the quality of its imag- 

Schreber's father, Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, was a physician 
and author of a very popular exercise book, Medical Indoor Exercises. 
From this book Smith took the character of the magus. By cataloguing the 
illustrations for the exercises, he collected a sequence of gestures which he 
animated into all the movements of the film's main character. 

What makes No. 12 much more complicated than its argument and 
what obscures its outlines is the multiplicity of details filling the images 
and the refusal on the part of the film-maker to indicate levels of impor- 
tance among these details. For example, before the dentist's chair can be 
used, it must be adjusted. A bird might lay an egg, out of which comes 
the hammer with which the magus can transform the dentist's chair. Other 
figures carry out bottles, mortars and pestles, and enema bulbs to prepare 
a liquid with which to oil the chair, and an almost identical set of oper- 
ations is repeated for the preparation of the potion to be injected into the 
heroine. Since the viewer never knows the desired end of an operation or 
a series of operations, he must divide his attention evenly among these 
endless and varied procedures. 

In addition to this, countless creatures and things are crossing the 
screen while these actions are going on — a dog, a cat, a skeleton horse, a 
walking house, a cow, a sheep, two spoon-like creatures, an homunculus, 
birds. At times they contribute to the operation at hand, but just as often 
their participation is deliberately obscure. 

The technique of distancing the dramatic focus of a story behind a 
continual foreground of evenly accented detail is a literary tactic dating 



from the novels of Raymond Roussel, before the First World War, and 
periodically revived, most recently in the plays of Richard Foreman. In 
No. 12 Harry Smith has offered its hypostatic equivalent in cinema. His 
continual alternation of associative and disassociative sound effects un- 
derlines this distancing; for as often as he will synchronize the sound of a 
dog barking when the dog crosses the screen or of screams when the 
woman is being dismembered, he will connect mooings with a horse, sud- 
denly inject applause, or preface or follow an event with the sound ap- 
propriate to it. 

Perhaps even more disorienting than the pressure of detail or the di- 
alectic of sound is the random combination of certain recurrent images. 
Like Brakhage in Prelude: Dog Star Man, Harry Smith found a way of 
incorporating chance operations in his film without sacrificing its structure. 
In Film Culture he says: 

All the permutations possible were built up: say, there's a ham- 
mer in it, and there's a vase, and there's a woman and there's a 
dog. Various things could then be done — hammer hits dog; 
woman hits dog; dog jumps into vase; so forth. It was possible 
to build up an enormous number of cross references. 11 

I tried as much as possible to make the whole thing auto- 
matic, the production automatic rather than any kind of logical 
process. Though, at this point, Allen Ginsberg denies having 
said it, about the time I started making those films, he told me 
that William Burroughs made a change in the Surrealistic pro- 
cess — because, you know, all that stuff comes from the Surreal- 
ists — that business of folding a piece of paper: One person 
draws the head and then folds it over, and somebody else draws 
the body. What do they call it? The Exquisite Corpse. Some- 
body later, perhaps Burroughs, realized that something was di- 
recting it, that it wasn't arbitrary, and that there was some kind 
of what you might call God. It wasn't just chance. 12 

I never did finish that sentence about the relation of Surreal- 
ism to my things: I assumed that something was controlling the 
course of action and that it was not simply arbitrary, so that by 
sortilege (as you know, there is a system of divination called 
"sortilege") everything would come out alright. 13 

Smith's use of chance coincides with his idea of the mantic function 
of the artist. He has said, "My movies are made by God; I was just the 
medium for them." The chance variations on the basic imagistic vocabu- 
lary of the film provide yet another metaphor between his film and the 
Great Work of the alchemists. For the Renaissance alchemist, the prepa- 
ration of his tools and of himself equalled in importance the act of trans- 



formation itself. Since every element in an alchemical change had to be 
perfect, each instrument and chemical had its own intricate preparation. 
Alchemical texts tend to read like endless recipes of purification, fire- 
making, etc. The commitment to preliminaries is so strong that in its spir- 
itual interpretation, alchemy becomes the slow perfection of the alchemist; 
the accent shifts from goals to processes. The viewer of No. 12 finds 
himself confronted with repetitive scenes of preparation — an egg hatches 
a hammer, which changes a machine, which will produce a liquid, etc. — 
toward a telos that brings us back to the beginning. The characters of the 
film end up precisely as they were at the beginning. Everything returns to 
its place of origin. 

No. 12 shares with the mythopoeic cinema of Brakhage, Anger, and 
Markopoulos the theme of the divided being or splintered consciousness 
which must be reintegrated. As I have shown in the previous chapters, this 
theme is an inheritance from Romanticism. In Smith's version of the myth, 
heaven and the human brain are conflated. When the physically divided 
woman first arrives in heaven she is seen within the frame of a female 
head. Her release from the anxieties of selfhood comes at the end of the 
film when the elevator brings her back to earth, down through the titanic 
body of Max Muller, who is last seen circumscribed by the same female 
head. Her disappearance from the action of the middle of the film cannot 
be construed as an escape from her anxiety, which I have called selfhood; 
these are her moments of maximal fragmentation, when all of the magus' 
efforts are directed at bringing her back, or at least preparing the tools to 
do so. 

Although there is no movement into or out of screen depth, various 
strategies are employed to suggest, at times, a recess of space there. The 
radiating balls, which help to create the illusion of ascent and descent to 
and from heaven, are the first of these. A room or theater is suggested 
immediately afterward in the first of the heavenly landscapes. Finally, the 
image of the Great Sewer, the last backdrop of the film, gives the impres- 
sion of a group of receding arcades. 

Among the more interesting spatial strategies in No. 12 are the sudden 
manifestations of the law of gravity. Through most of the film, figures 
simply move along virtual horizontal lines imagined within the black back- 
ground. They do not need the support of a floor or structure to keep from 
falling out of the frame. But occasionally, as when the arch forms in the 
lower part of the screen, such support suddenly becomes necessary. The 
most dramatic use of this change of pace occurs during the episode in 
which a line of couches descends vertically down the screen. They create 
a void within the screen. The magus cannot pass without leaping on to 
one of the passing couches for support. His alternative, of course, is to 
float over the void by using the umbrella. 

A related configuration of space within the black background would 
be the series of arches through which the magus walks or rides on the 
couch-boat. Normally, passage across the screen is smooth, along a single 



plane. When he begins to pass through arches by crossing in front of the 
right-hand pillar and behind the left-hand pillar of the arch, a sense of 
depth emerges without the illusion of diminishing into the vanishing point 
of the screen. 

The circularity of the film's form, the use of nineteenth-century en- 
gravings, and above all the theme of the mutable woman recall Max 
Ernst's collage novel, La Femme 100 Tetes (1929), whose title in French 
puns as the woman with 100 (cent) heads or the woman without (sans) 
heads. That novel, in collage pictures, begins and ends with the same im- 
age. Within it are sections and subsections built on varying degrees of 
thematic and narrative sequence. Whenever a series of plates has a specific 
narrative and therefore temporal logic, Ernst introduces another image or 
images into the collage which does not follow the same unity of time or 

The collages abound in complex machinery and scenes of violence and 
dismemberment. Studying the images in sequence, the reader experiences 
promises of narration which continually evaporate or transform into 
chains of metaphor. The ultimate unity of the book is that of the dream. 
Harry Smith has said that he let his dreams determine the filming of No. 
iz. According to his account, he slept fitfully in the studio where he was 
filming for the entire year in which the film was being shot. He would 
sleep for a while, then animate his dreams. The exact relation between his 
dreams and the structure of the film is ambiguous, unless we can suppose 
that he dreamed the life of the figures he had already cut out and assembled 
for his film. What is more likely is that he established an intuitive rela- 
tionship between the structure of his dreams and the substructure of the 

In 197 1 at Anthology Film Archives Smith spontaneously delivered a 
lecture to a group of students he happened upon in that theater. As they 
were looking at a film, not by him, in the realist tradition — a film of 
photographed actuality — he said, "You shouldn't be looking at this as a 
continuity. Film frames are hieroglyphs, even when they look like actuality. 
You should think of the individual film frame, always, as a glyph, and 
then you'll understand what cinema is about." 

It is certainly true that within Smith's own work the hieroglyph is 
essential. When he finally began to shoot actualities for No. 14 (1965), he 
translated the spatial and temporal tactics of his earlier films into super- 
imposed structures. From an opening reel — for the film is made up of 
whole, unedited one hundred foot reels of film multiply-exposed in the 
camera — in which relatively flat and carefully controlled surfaces (a com- 
position of a store window or animated objects) are laid upon images of 
depth (receding night lights or rooms), the film proceeds to more random 
conjunctions of autobiographical material, from interiors to exteriors, 
from richly orchestrated colors to washed-out browns. In the final reels, 
the film gradually retraces its formal course, returning to the animated 
precision, spatial dialogue, and surface texture of the opening. In the center 

2 5 8 


of the film Smith himself gets drunk while discussing his project for a 
recording of the Kiowa peyote ritual with Folkways records, and after a 
passage of leader — he did not even cut off the head and tail leaders that 
were attached to the individual rolls — we see the Kiowa and their envi- 
ronment. It is as if he had opened up his hieroglyphic art to make a space 
for a limited self-portrait. 

Later he managed to fuse animation directly to live photography when 
he combined "The Approach to Emerald City," the most complete of the 
surviving fragments of No. 13, with a sequence he shot in 1968 with a 
teleidoscope (a projecting kaleidoscope of his own construction) in order 
to make The Tin Woodsman's Dream. The temporal hiatus between the 
two parts of this film apparently means nothing to Smith, who sees the 
whole of his work, not just his cinema, as a single edifice. 

Jordan Belson, Smith's closest associate in their early years in San 
Francisco, has made a contribution to the graphic film of comparable mag- 
nitude. Curiously, like Smith, he made a teleidoscopic film, Raga (1959), 
as well as at least one effort at dealing with actual surfaces with the control 
of an animator, Bop Scotch (1953). But proceeding from an attitude to- 
wards time and the working process diametrically opposed to Smith's, he 
has suppressed these films. In Belson's formulation of the absolute film, at 
least until 1970, the newest work is the only present film; it subsumes and 
makes obsolete his earlier achievements. 

Belson is aware of the philosophical consequences of such a commit- 
ment to the all-consuming present. He is reticent about discussing his own 
past, and what he does say of it underlines his distance from it. Interest- 
ingly, that reticence extends to discussions of the "past" of the very films 
he willingly exhibits, particularly the techniques of their making. Yet he is 
eager to discuss the spiritual sources of his films. This is not inconsistent, 
as the films aspire to incarnate those source experiences and save them 
from time. They are transcendental, and their maker is a transcendentalist. 

Jordan Belson too began his career as a painter and soon allied himself 
with Smith and the Kandinsky-Bauer tradition, although, to judge from 
his scrolls from the early fifties, he never committed himself to hard-edged 
geometry. Instead, he located his style in proximity to the later paintings 
of Kandinsky in which the rigidly defined forms give way to a more at- 
mospheric abstractionism and a painterly treatment of line and shape. 

The few early films I have managed to see grow out of and inform 
the paintings, for there is an undisguised will toward movement in the 
scrolls. Belson graduated from the California School of Fine Arts in 1946 
(just two years before Peterson gave his first film-making course there), 
and the next year, inspired by the screenings at Art in Cinema, he made 
his first film, Transmutation (1947), which is now destroyed. According 
to the film-maker, it was made under the immediate inspiration of seeing 
Richter's Rhythmus 21. Improvisations #1, from the following year, is also 



The earliest surviving films date from the beginning of the 1950s: 
Mambo (1951), Caravan (1952), Mandala (1953), and Bop Scotch (1953). 
The first three describe a gradual movement toward meditative imagery 
and rhythms. From the rather expressionistic oval forms, bright colors, 
and calligraphic designs of Mambo, which at times resembles the texture 
of William Baziotes's paintings, Belson refined his imagery in Caravan, 
emphasizing both the geometrical (radiating circles against moving back- 
grounds) and the biomorphic (serpentine and spermatoid shapes). Al- 
though the yin-yang emblem finds its way into Caravan, it is the subse- 
quent film, Mandala, that definitively aspires to be an object of meditation 
in the Easter tradition, as its name indicates. The geometry of Mandala is 
even more emphatic than in the earlier film. The transformations are 
slower, and there are discrete jumps in positions. For the first time a dis- 
crete pulse gives a regular rhythm to the entire film. 

After another period of concentration on his painting, Belson was led 
back to cinema after collaborating with the composer Henry Jacobs on 
the Vortex concerts of abstract and cosmic imagery with electronic sound 
at the San Francisco Planetarium (1957-1959). Of the finished and aban- 
doned films from this period, Flight (1958), Raga (1959), Seance (1959), 
Allures (1961), LSD, and Illusions (dates uncertain), the author has seen 
only Allures and the teleidoscopic film Raga. They represent the termina- 
tion of his initial conception of cinema and forecast the transition to his 
mature style, which emerges after still another renunciation of cinema — 
this time in a profound despair over the value of art. Simply stated, the 
early films, up until and including Allures, are objects of meditation. The 
subsequent works, his nine major films, describe the meditative quest 
through a radical interiorization of mandalic objects and cosmological im- 

Allures is actually the filmic result of Belson's experience with the Vor- 
tex concerts in the late fifties. Although it blends images of becoming and 
apperception (dissolving and congealing spheres, color flickers, hot spots 
of light) with its predominantly geometrical and mechanically symmetrical 
patterns, it comes short of delineating a perceptual process in its overall 
structure. These moments of organic metamorphosis bind together and 
bracket the electro-astronomical imagery (expanding rings, receding cir- 
cles, emerging spirals, eclipses, oscilloscopic lines, dot grids, and spheres 
of orbiting pin-point lights) which forms the center of attention in the film. 

Belson acknowledges a debt to James Whitney as his instructor in the 
mandalic potential of the graphic film. Aside from the film exercises he 
made with his brother John, James Whitney has made two films of his 
own, Yantra (1950-1955) and Lapis (1963-1966). The latter is the most 
elaborate example of a mandala in cinema. It utilizes a field of tiny dots, 
symmetrically organized in hundreds of very fine concentric rings, to gen- 
erate slowly changing intricate patterns which are most precise in the cen- 
ter of the wheel, disintegrating at the outer rings. The film consists of 


movements into the center of this wheel of dots, which at first expands 
beyond the borders of the frame, and movements away from it, showing 
its circular boundaries. Changes of color, scale, speed, and dot pattern 
attend the visual movements, but they are orchestrated in time so as to 
suggest a formal circle, the opening images and color flicker being almost 
exactly repeated at the end. Both structurally and visually Lapis conforms 
to the circular form of the mandala; its elaborate movements belie a fun- 
damental stasis. 

None of Belson's early films are classical mandalas, but they all have 
the objective of being vehicles of meditation. According to the film-maker, 
they represent the "impersonal" phase of his career. That single word de- 
scribes the fate of modernist geometrical art in the American avant-garde 
film. Like the trance film, the graphic film flourished in the first years after 
the war and then failed to sustain its vitality into the 1950s. We have seen 
how Harry Smith's art veered from the geometrical to the mythopoeic 
without abandoning animation, and in the next chapter I shall show how 
the graphic film was renewed in Europe by an American and an Austrian. 
Belson's successive resignations from film-making, James Whitney's retire- 
ment after Lapis, John Whitney's silence until the cybernetic alternative 
renewed his inspiration in the late 1960s, and Len Lye's fate, all attest to 
the exhaustion of a formalist cinema in America. 

When Belson gave up film-making in the early sixties, he diverted his 
creative energy to the practice of Hatha yoga. When the Ford Foundation 
offered him one of their coveted $10,000 grants in 1964, he turned them 
down. But after reconsidering, he accepted the money and reentered film- 
making with Re-Entry, the first of his "personal" films. For Belson the 
opposition of impersonal to personal art does not indicate an antithesis of 
geometrical formalism to Expressionism. As a yogi, Belson seeks the tran- 
scendence of the self. His personal cinema delineates the mechanics of 
transcendence in the rhetoric of abstractionism. 

In Re-Entry he successfully synthesizes the Yogic and the cosmological 
elements in his art for the first time by forcefully abstracting and playing 
down both of them. The great advance of this film over all of his earlier 
work consists in the organization of its images into an intentional struc- 
ture. From an opening of symmetrically ordered dots, moving along the 
plane of the flat screen and along illusionary lines of depth, the film moves, 
as if impelled by a directional force, through a fluid series of gaseous colors 
with a single metaphoric allusion to solar prominences. A second meta- 
phor, the abstraction of a waterfall, focuses the amorphous bands of color 
into a series of vivid veils lifting to reveal the formation of a spherical 
vortex which congeals in the final moment into a planet, as if the whole 
thrust of the film had been towards this one point. 

In his very useful description of this and the subsequent three Belson 
films, Gene Youngblood has to go to the vocabulary of the color chart to 
portray the changes within the film, from "pale manganese blue" to "co- 
balt violet" and "alizarin crimson." He also informs us, presumably on 


the film-maker's authority, that the twin sources of the film were John 
Glenn's first satellite voyage and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and he 
interprets the structure of the film as "leaving the earth's atmosphere 
(death), moving through deep space (karmic illusions), and re-entry into 
the earth's atmosphere (rebirth)." 

With the making of his next film, Phenomena (1965), Belson elabo- 
rated on the teleological structure. He gave it the same thrust towards its 
ending — a passage through gaseous space toward a climactic image — but 
he also elaborated an opening drive away from concrete imagery into the 
gaseous spectrum of the center. This time the flow of consciousness is not 
cyclic, as in Re-Entry; it is transcendent, from the phenomena of nature 
to the final apperceptive union of the planet with the pupil of the eye. 

Youngblood quotes Belson, who described the film as 

an extremely capsulized history of creation on earth, including 
all the elements and man. It's the human sociological-racial ex- 
perience on one level, and it's a kind of biological experience in 
the sense that it's physical. It's seen with the blinders of human- 
ity, you know, just being a human, grunting on the face of the 
earth, exercising and agonizing. There's even a touch of the Cru- 
cifixion in there — a brief suggestion of a crown of thorns, a red 
ring of centers, each emitting a kind of thorny light cluster. The 
man and the woman are Adam and Eve if they're anyone. I see 
them as rather comic at that point. At the end of course it's 
pure consciousness and they're like gods. The end of the film is 
the opposite of the beginning; it's still life on earth but not seen 
from within, as sangsara, but as if you were approaching it 
from outside of consciousness so to speak. From cosmic con- 
sciousness. As though you were approaching it as a god. 

The man and woman referred to are abstracted faces, possibly pho- 
tographed through a stippled glass off a television screen near the begin- 
ning of the film. They are presented in a montage of colors, shapes, and 
textures unusually collisive for Belson, pulsating to a rock-like electronic 
beat. This frenetic and elliptical sequence is what he meant by the "cap- 
sulized history," although the two human figures are its only emblematic 
images. (The reference to the Crucifixion in the clusters of brilliant red 
sparks against a blue base is more a personal association than a factor in 
the force of the film.) 

However, in Phenomena, Belson supports the rhythm of his images 
by carefully selected and abstracted sound, and he also creates an audible 
movement from irony to purity. The opening abstraction of rock music is 
itself an element in the image of sangsara — the frantic vision of life from 
the perspective of a mind limited to following its appearances, the "phe- 
nomena" of the title. The soundtrack ends, appropriately, in applause. 



In the rise beyond appearances, the echoing distortions of a passage 
of German lieder inaugurate a sequence of patterned imagery. The screen 
becomes grids of symmetrical cells, changing their vibrant colors in waves. 
The progressive dissolution of these geometrical fields, as the fragmented 
song becomes a buzz, extends the metaphor of a movement implicit in the 
succession of geometrical abstraction following the colliding textures and 
images. That movement reaches its end in the center of the film — the gases 
of pure color, which in turn begin their own intentional motion towards 
a new concretion. They pull first vertically, then horizontally across the 
screen until a central vortex forms. It crystallizes into a planetary sphere 
which in the final image becomes the negative center of the positive space 
around it — the teleological image of an immense eye. This metaphor is as 
close as Belson ever comes to the self-reflexive. Both his illusionism and 
his cosmology repudiate apperception. His films seem to postulate that 
once the consciousness begins its transcendental movement, the self upon 
which it might then look back vanishes; they do not accept the post- 
Romantic paradoxes which define the horizons of so many other films in 
the American avant-garde tradition, and this is both a weakness and a 

Even an art as deeply indebted to Eastern metaphysics as Belson's does 
not find its tradition in Eastern religious art, much as it might aspire to it 
and derive images or forms from it. The aesthetic use of oriental thought 
is a Romantic tradition, and a particularly fertile one in America. Belson 
is closer to the Emerson of Circles as an artist than to Ramana Maharshi 
or Tibetan iconographers. "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it 
forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated 
without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world." These 
opening lines of Emerson's essay might be the motto of Phenomena. Some 
pages later, he forecasts the scenario of Belson's next film, Samadhi, writ- 
ing, "Yet this incessant movement and progression of which all things 
partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some prin- 
ciple of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal generation of 
circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That central life is somewhat 
superior to creation, superior to knowledge and thought, and contains all 
its circles." 

Samadhi recapitulates the ending of Phenomena in its initial moments. 
(From this point on it will be an interestingly deliberate strategy of Belson's 
to begin a new film at the point where the previous one ends.) In the 
middle of Phenomena, the gases had briefly dissolved into a bumpy, con- 
cave field resembling rows of small translucent balls melted together or 
perhaps an abstraction of the furrows of the cerebral cortex. Belson begins 
Samadhi with this mysterious and haunting image in several forms, as 
colors sweep over a rippling surface. Then he repeats a figure-ground tran- 
sition which turns a planetary circle into an eye. 

From this point on the film sustains an unbroken intensity, engender- 
ing a chilling ecstasy. In the center of the screen circular forms undergo a 

Jordan Belson's cosmic geometry in Allures and Samadhi. 


chain of transformations. Large gaseous balls revolve; small distant spheres 
radiate rings of fire and fill the entire frame with their outpouring lumi- 
nosity. A retarded breathing sound becomes an interiorized wind. By ex- 
tending the respiratory pace of the breathing into electronic pitches and 
percussive rhythms, the film-maker created an aural counterpart to the 
transitions from fluid or fiery balls to hard spheres which constitute the 
visual center of the film. 

The continual, slow metamorphosis of images and the illusions of 
emergence and recession suggest a movement on the spectator's part into 
the depth of the screen. It is the movement of consciousness towards sa- 
madhi, the union of subject and object, or the fusion of atma (breath) and 
mind. This state, which reveals the pure white light of the force called 
kundalini, is one of the principal goals of Yogic meditation. 

The statements that Youngblood quotes about Samadhi indicate as 
much as could be known in 1970 of Jordan Belson's theory of cinema. 14 
For him, as for almost all other film-makers within the American avant- 
garde, the cinema is an instrument of discovery, a means of coming to 
know more, or more clearly, what is most essential to him: "Early in life 
I experimented with peyote, LSD, and so on. But in many ways my films 
are ahead of my own experience. " 15 He cites Samadhi as the single example 
of a convergence of a meditative vision with one arising out of the expe- 
rience of film-making: "In fact Samadhi is the only one in which I actually 
caught up with the film and ran alongside of it for just a moment." 16 But 
he stresses the advantage of cinema for sustaining the mystic vision: 

The film is way ahead of anything I've experienced on a contin- 
uing basis. And the same has been true of my drug experiences. 
They somehow set the stage for insights. I had peyote fifteen 
years ago but I didn't have any cosmic or Samadhic experiences. 
That remained for something to happen through development of 
different levels of consciousness. The new art and other forms of 
expression reveal the influence of mind-expansion. And finally 
we reach a point where there is virtually no separation between 
science, observation, and philosophy. The new artist works es- 
sentially the same way as the scientist. . . . But at other times the 
artist is able to focus more in an area of consciousness and sub- 
jective phenomena but with the same kind of scientific zeal, the 
same objectivity, as scientists. 17 

The particular success of discovering in the filmic material the imagery 
of his privileged glimpses during Yogic trances led to his version of the 
myth of the absolute film: 

I reached the point that what I was able to produce externally, 
with the equipment, was what I was seeing internally. I could 
close my eyes and see these images within my own being, and I 



could look out at the sky and see the same thing happening 
there too. And most of the time I'd see them when I looked 
through the viewfinder of my camera mounted on the optical 
bench. I've always considered image-producing equipment as an 
extension of the mind. The mind has produced these images and 
has made the equipment to produce them physically. In a way 
it's a projection of what's going on inside, phenomena thrown 
out by consciousness, which we are able to look at. In a way 
I'm doing something similar to the clairvoyant Ted Serrios who 
can project his thoughts onto Polaroid film. Only I have to filter 
my consciousness through an enormous background of art and 
film-making. 18 

The myth of the absolute film can have no more total expression than 
Belson's often repeated statement that he believed he would die after mak- 
ing Samadhi and he was surprised when he did not. With the remaining 
"momentum" of his energies he made Momentum (1969). That film lit- 
eralized the metaphor of interior movement from Samadhi. In its opening 
shots a rocket blasts off in several different solid colors; following its tra- 
jectory, we focus on the center of the screen, where a series of enlarging 
circles being eclipsed and haloed by coronas suggests that the rocket's aim 
is at the sun. But rather than shoot into the explosive center of the image, 
which in its fullest magnitude fills the screen with spectacular radiations, 
we seem to veer over its rim, as larger and larger disks occupy the lower 
portion of the screen. The passage through gases, a typical feature of Bel- 
son's cinema, here takes the concrete form of movement through multi- 
colored solar prominences. 

Once past the sun, the film attains a new dimension. Structurally, it 
retraces the crescendo of the first half in a visionary or interiorized version 
of the trip to the sun. The central trope of the interiorization is the use of 
tiny, swarming dots in the re-enactment of the approach to the radiating 
sphere, which makes that spectacular image even more dynamic. At first 
the dots establish a difference of depth between the surface of the screen 
(the consciousness of the viewer -explorer) and the circular or gaseous fig- 
ure in the distance (the object of that directional consciousness). This hap- 
pens when white spots dance irregularly before the vague backgrounds. 
After they vanish, a new "sun" forms itself, even more radiant and explo- 
sive than the first. This time the consciousness, no longer mediated by the 
rocket ship, flows into its very center. In that movement the star itself 
becomes an organized haze of atomic points, like the specks of James 
Whitney's Lapis, radiating in rings out of the stellar crater, until in a final 
image of the starry sky, a bright central nova seems to have exploded. 

Three central principles inform the cosmology of Momentum and the 
two films which follow it, Cosmos and World. They are that human con- 
sciousness, even when it believes itself to be exploring freely, is actually 
guided to its goal by a greater consciousness; that human consciousness 



transcends itself by merging with the object which magnetized it, without 
losing its awareness of its history as human; and that stars, galaxies, and 
the very cosmos are visible bodies of consciousness in a hierarchy. 

Cosmos begins at the point where Momentum ends; zooming through 
layers of stars, it continues the earlier film's thrust. At the end, it fixes an 
image of a galaxy in which the atomic spots of the previous film now 
represent whole stars; a new stage has been reached in the quest for cosmic 
consciousness. But between the opening and closing sections Belson has 
elaborated a new kind of center. 

In his third cosmic film, World (1970), Belson again attains the visual 
level of his very best work, even though the film is constrained, like the 
previous two, by a banal musical soundtrack. The function that had earlier 
been fulfilled by emblematic astronomical imagery is more successfully 
managed in World by an abstract geometry reminiscent of Allures. In fact, 
the whole film looks back upon the formal coordinates of Allures, the 
mixture of symmetrical, exploding geometries and atmospheric spaces, and 
it includes such elements as color flickers, spiralling, comet-like shapes, 
oscilloscopic spheres, and expanding rings of dots in a work of architec- 
tural sophistication. 

The transition between mechanical and organic forms is subtly man- 
aged by acts of enclosure and expansion which alternately seem to provide 
matrices for each other. The film has a crescendo-diminuendo shape which 
organizes its rhetoric of metamorphoses around the brilliant central image 
of a patterned sphere of complexly-orbiting white dots. The sphere, born 
of a solidification of grey gases, quickly changes into waves of expanding 
concentric rings. The skeletal sphere is disclosed, crucially, in the middle 
of the film, with the solemnity of a revealed arcanum; both the gaseous 
and the geometrical imagery seem to point towards it or emanate from it. 

Meditation (1971) elaborates upon structures of the three films im- 
mediately preceding it, but it inscribes the astronomical metaphor within 
imagery of foaming water in slow motion and superimposition, flowing 
backwards. Like Momentum's beginning with the rocket as mediator, this 
film suddenly shows a diver, gliding horizontally across the screen, then 
plunging into the center. After a chain of metamorphoses, the human me- 
diator re-emerges as a planet-eye. First the planet-eye is a circular hole in 
a black ground through which stars can be seen, but as it enlarges, the 
ground dissolves into more stars, leaving the circle to be defined by its red 
corona. The evaporation of that corona identifies the observing conscious- 
ness (the hole) with its object (the stars). 

Cbakra (1972) attempts to improve on his masterpiece, Samadhi, by 
restating that interior quest with accent on the barriers of the different 
stations passed through — the chakras of the title — rather than on the in- 
tentional movement which had been the dynamic of the earlier film. Belson 
achieves an interaction of continuous propulsion with discrete, discontin- 
uous stages by using his sound track to isolate passages of the film. By 
extending strong and easily identifiable sounds across a section of visual 



transformations, those very transformations seem to occur within the 
bounded section; their propulsive energy seems directed at breaking 
through to the next stage, represented by the use of a new sound. The 
series of sounds itself (the buzz of bees, a motor, rain, high-pitched static, 
ocean, bells, the hum of a string instrument, drums, a flute, and music 
swelling to a climax) came from a sound chart in Mishra's Fundamentals 
of Yoga, just as the visual shapes correspond to the outline in Govinda's 
Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. 19 Or perhaps it would be more accurate 
to say that they represent a reorganization of the imagery Belson uses in 
most of his films (swarming dots, a galaxy, circles and spheres, a video 
storm) to correspond to the sequence of shapes and images the Tibetan 
mystics saw while contemplating the progress of the chakras in their med- 
itations. Belson has said that with Chakra the phase of his work that began 
with Re-Entry came to an end. 

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I I he Graphic Cinema 



Kenneth Anger, and Gregory Markopoulos 
lived and made films in Europe during 
part of the 1950s. Their aesthetics had 
been molded in the 1940s in America, and 
the change of place did not mean a funda- 
mental change of style or vision, despite 
the radical division between American and 
European practical film theory at that 
time. The avant-garde tradition in film had 
broken down in the early 1930s, and de- 
spite sporadic and isolated efforts at inde- 
pendent film-making in several countries, 
the only continuous and sustaining force 
for ambitious cinema was at the margins 
of the commercial industries. All three film- 
makers returned to America to make their 
major works of the 1960s. When Anger 
and Markopoulos went back to Europe at 
the end of the decade, the situation there 
had been changed as a result of direct 
American influence. 

Two important figures of the Ameri- 
can avant-garde cinema, however, began 



to make their first films in Europe in the early 1950s. They are Robert 
Breer, an American, whose cinema grew out of the painting he was doing 
in Paris in the early 1950s, and Peter Kubelka, an Austrian who went 
directly into cinema but who did not find a significant context for his art 
until he came to the United States in 1965. Breer had resettled in Palisades, 
New York by 1959. Although their films are obviously very different and 
no influence can be traced from one to the other, both have their roots in 
the graphic cinema of Eggeling, Richter, Duchamp, and Lye, without the 
mediation of the Abstract Expressionistic and mythopoeic phases that I 
have described in the previous chapters. 

Both Breer and Kubelka were only marginally aware of the early 
graphic cinema. Nevertheless, they each took up its premises and reduced 
them to a new essence after a hiatus of more than twenty years. The sim- 
ilarity of their situations, if not of their films, has produced a number of 
related (sometimes in likeness, sometimes in opposition) theoretical posi- 
tions and insights, which will become evident as I discuss their films and 
their theories separately. Since they both came to America as fully mature 
artists, their work and thought have been resistant to certain native pat- 
terns and will therefore offer an illuminating contrast within this book. 

The two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s 
made without animation were Fernand Leger's he Ballet Mecanique and 
Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema. By extending a metaphor from several 
of his paintings into film, Leger compared a universe of human actions 
and everyday objects to the functions of a machine. The movements of a 
woman on a swing, the loop of another climbing a flight of steps again 
and again, the rapid alternation of a hat and a shoe through montage, 
rhythmic flashes of street scenes, and periodic prismatic distortions are 
compared to the operations of gears, pistons, and flywheels. Each of the 
movements of both the tenor and vehicle defines a shallow or a flat space 
of performance. Even the loop of the woman climbing the stairs with her 
wash confines her repeated efforts to the same two or three steps in the 
flight, as if a very limited depth were open to her in the potential field. 

he Ballet Mecanique is a tour de force of rhythmic and spatial strat- 
egies. Two are particularly interesting within the scope of this chapter. It 
was one of the first films to employ the rapid intercutting of static scenes 
to give the impression of motion — a hat stretching out to a shoe or a 
triangle jumping into the shape of a circle — and perhaps the very first to 
combine fragments of actual motion into purely rhythmic figures. It was 
certainly the pioneer in combining both these tactics to render three- 
dimensional images flat to the eye by means of the speed with which they 
pass on the screen. Both Breer and Kubelka are the heirs of this strategy 
as much as of the formal intricacies of the films of Eggeling and Richter. 

The second formal operation of importance to us derives from Cubist 
painting. It is the incorporation of printed texts to present the literal flat- 
ness of reading within the framework of conflicting, diminished depths. 


Clement Greenberg has described the function of printing within the con- 
text of Cubist painting and collage: 

[Braque] discovered that trompe-l'oeil could be used to unde- 
ceive as well as to deceive with. It could be used, that is, to de- 
clare as well as to deny the actual surface. If the actuality of the 
surface — its real, physical flatness — could be indicated explicitly 
enough in certain places, it would be distinguished and sepa- 
rated from everything else the surface contained. . . . 

The first and, until the advent of pasted paper, the most im- 
portant device that Braque discovered for indicating and sepa- 
rating the surface was imitation printing, which automatically 
evokes a literal flatness. . . . Only in the next year [1911] are 
block capitals, along with lower case numerals, introduced in 
exact simulation of printing and stenciling, in absolute frontality 
and outside the representational context of the picture. 1 

Leger introduced the same dimension to film when he showed a title, "on 
a vole un collier de perles de 5 millions," which as we read it 
makes us forget the fact that it must have been placed a certain distance 
from the camera in order to be filmed. It seems as if the words lie on top 
of the actual screen. But when he swings the camera back and forth in 
front of the sign, we are forced to experience that depth. 

Marcel Duchamp refined the same principle in his Anemic Cinema 
(1927). He slowly intercut centered shots of rotating wheels with spiral 
lines on them and wheels with puns printed spirally. The lines generated 
optical illusions of depth into and out of the screen surface when they 
turned. But the sentences remain perfectly flat because they are read. 

Breer made very little use of printed texts for this purpose; Kubelka 
none at all. But later artists of the graphic film made it a cornerstone of 
the participatory film, an outgrowth of the structural film which often 
overlaps with the graphic. 

Robert Breer's first film, Form Phases I (1952), comes directly out of 
the tradition of Richter and Eggeling. A black rectangle rests in the center 
of the screen with a white rim around it. All of the animation occurs within 
the black space. Lines appear, intersect, and spread to the edges of the 
blackness. A consistent rhythm of frozen and moving figures establishes 
the following pattern: the lines slowly move to a fixed form; then that 
form holds still for a few seconds and cuts abruptly to another frozen 
figure; after that is held for the same amount of time, it slowly changes, 
freezes, cuts to another figure, etc. The alternation of changing lines with 
collisions of still shapes determines the structure of this very short film. In 
the course of its evolution the black rectangle loses its reductive shape; the 
changing lines leak over into the white border, diminish the edges of the 
rectangle into curves, and carve sections from it. 


Breer described the background of his first film in an interview with 
Guy Cote: 

First, I was a painter. In Paris, I was influenced by the geo- 
metric abstractions of the neo-plasticians, following Mondrian 
and Kandinsky. It was big at that time, and I began painting 
that way. My canvasses were limited to three or four forms, 
each one hard-edged and having its own definite color. It was a 
rather severe kind of abstraction, but already in certain ways I 
had begun to give my work a dynamic element which showed 
that I was not entirely at home within the strict limits of neo- 
plasticism. Also, the notion of absolute formal values seemed at 
odds with the number of variations I could develop around a 
single theme and I became interested in change itself and finally 
in cinema as a means of exploring this further. I wanted to see 
if I could possibly control a range of variations in a single com- 
position. You can see that I sort of backed into cinema since my 
main concern was with static forms. In fact, I was even a bit an- 
noyed at first when I ran into the problems of movement. 2 

Later in the same interview he unfolds the heart of his first film when he 
says of all his work, "I'm interested in the domain between motion and 
still pictures." The cuts of Form Phases I take place between still figures, 
often the mirror images of each other, and the motion variations are brack- 
eted by the static poles of arche and telos, the beginning from which and 
the end to which lines move. The realms between stillness and motion 
remain the object of almost all of Breer's explorations in cinema. He came 
quickly to a heightened awareness of the operation of the single frame as 
the locus of the tension between the static and the moving. 

In Form Phases II (1953) the fastest shots are three frames long in a 
color animation of evolving and freezing hard-edged shapes in both recip- 
rocal and uncoordinated movements. Reversing and varying the reductive 
screen-within-the-screen of his first film, he placed a thin black border, 
sometimes thicker on the left, sometimes on the right, around an almost 
completely white rectangle in the center. In the middle of the film, still 
another reduction of the screen shape, a small rectangle with blue diagonal 
stripes, appears and enlarges to the edges of the frames as the diagonals 
come loose and descend across the screen in waving blue lines. The final 
and most interesting tactic for generating forms out of the given shape of 
the screen is the use of a black dot which moves just within the edges of 
the white, black-bordered space, defining its limits. 

The following year he made a loop, Image by Images I (1954), com- 
posed entirely of shots only one frame long. Of course, every animated 
film is made by shooting one frame at a time. But conventionally only tiny 
variations in the shape and position of images are permitted by animators 
to give the illusion of a continuous naturalistic motion. Breer's invention 



was to abolish all of the slight variations and to project a continuously 
repeating strip of film in which each frame was essentially independent of 
the others. Thus any sense of continuous movement would have to be 
replaced by a more general notion of rapid change, an affirmation of the 
static in the center of the greatest speed that cinema affords. Furthermore, 
the endless loop confirms the stasis of the individual frames by repeating 
them at fixed intervals. 

The same year that he experimented with the loop of Image by Images 
I, Breer made his first collage film, Un Miracle (1954), in collaboration 
with Pontus Hulten. It animates Pope Pius XII in a gesture of benediction 
from the Vatican balcony so that first he seems to be juggling a series of 
balls and then his own head. The film is only thirty seconds long. It is, 
however, the first manifestation of a second strain in Breer's work which 
runs parallel to his formalism throughout the 1950s and dominates his 
work in the early 1960s — the humorous cartoon. 

The first film (as opposed to a loop), in which he employed the single- 
frame changes of Image by Images I was Image by Images IV (1956). It 
is not a strictly single-frame film, as none of Breer's have been in toto since 
the original experiment: single-frame variations on line figures, both open 
and closed into geometrical shapes, numbers, and flickering colors collide 
with graceful continuous lines, with movements in clusters that are re- 
peated several times with variations. For the first time, he gave this film a 
soundtrack: rapid sputtering noises similar to, if not actually sprocket 
holes passing the sound reader. 

Retreating temporarily from his investigations of high-speed imagery, 
he made Motion Pictures (1956) the same year. In a filmography he de- 
scribed it as an "evolution of forms derived from the author's paintings." 
Against a black field, constantly changing colored strips of paper cross the 
screen, meet each other, and deflect at angles. Each encounter of two edges 
of the paper creates a possible transformation of direction, angle, color, 
and scale. At one point he modifies the texture of his materials by using 
a thick white paper towel. This time the soundtrack is made up of discon- 
tinuous sounds of a violin. Motion Pictures remained the most elaborate 
of Breer's achievements in the strict tradition of Eggeling and Richter. 

With his next film, Recreation I (1956-1957), Breer made his first 
major contribution to the alternative graphic film tradition, that of Leger 
and Le Ballet Mecanique. Here he elaborated the single-frame technique 
of Image by Images I and /V into a complex micro-rhythmic form, with 
the fastest possible stretches of imagery (single-frame sequences) inter- 
rupted by and evolving into just slightly longer shots of a few frames. The 
speed of the alternations tends to flatten the appearance of objects in the 
single-frame shots so that they expand into a somewhat deeper space when 
the merest extension of their duration occurs. Besides the hundreds of 
successive shifts in degrees of shallow depth, there is a coordinated tension 
between the stasis of the single frames and the minute, fragmented figures 
in motion when brief continuities occur. 


Along with collages of colored paper, a moire pattern, and a piece of 
typewritten paper, Recreation I uses numerous solid objects of differing 
degrees of depth: buttons, a mechanical mouse, a jackknife, plastic film 
reels, a glove, a cat, string, the animator's hand, and most strikingly, a 
wad of paper expanding after compression. Almost all of the images ap- 
pear twice, but not in a symmetrical pattern; often they are inverted and 
the number of frames allocated to them is not the same for each appear- 
ance. The effect of these numerous variations within a very limited range 
of depths and durations is to create a dense pattern of interlocking and 
incomplete rhythms accented by slight, discontinuous movements within 
the frame which the eye can organize into a complex unity. 

Noel Burch, who wrote and speaks the run-on punning French speech 
which accompanies the film like a Dadaist commentary, accurately com- 
pared the total impression of this film to the collages of Kurt Schwitters. 3 
Breer himself made a statement about the structure he generally prefers 
for his films, which is particularly appropriate here: 

I think of film as a "space image" which is presented for a 
certain length of time. As with a painting, the image must sub- 
mit to the subjective projection of the viewer and undergo a cer- 
tain modification. Even a static painting has a certain time di- 
mension, determined by the viewer to suit his needs and wishes. 
In film, the period of looking is determined by the artist and im- 
posed on the spectator, his captive audience. A painting can be 
"taken in" immediately, that is, it is present in its total self at 
all times. My approach to film is that of a painter — that is, I try 
to present the total image right away, and the images following 
are merely other aspects of and equivalent to the first and final 
image. Thus the whole work is constantly presented from begin- 
ning to end and, though in constant transformation, is at all 
times its total self. Obviously, then, there is no denouement, no 
gradual revelation except for constantly changing aspects of the 
statement, in the same manner in which a painting is subjec- 
tively modified during viewing. 4 

In an article on the cinema, called "A New Realism — The Object," 
which equates "the realism of the cinema" with "the possibilities of the 
fragment or element," Fernand Leger calls for a new kind of film-maker: 

New men are needed — men who have acquired a new sensitive- 
ness toward the object and its image. An object for instance if 
projected for 20 seconds is given its full value — projected 30 
seconds it becomes negative. 5 

In Recreation I Breer took up the challenge of Leger, but in a direction of 
heightened speed that the maker of Le Ballet Mecanique had not quite 

In an interview Breer stated: 



I started in Europe and I feel that my orientation was some- 
what European. As a painter I was working out of Bauhaus 
traditions while Abstract Expressionism was getting going here, 
you know, coming out of Surrealism. . . . It's true that my films 
had their roots in European experimentation of the Twenties. 
. . . Another European aspect of my work might be that it is 
more conventionalized than that of the Americans. The Abstract 
Expressionists, and so forth, were working in a sort of anti- 
conventional way, trying for direct expression, while I was 
happy working out of conventions. I like this idea of limitations 
which you break all the time. The limitations have to be there, 
if they're self-imposed or if they come through some kind of his- 
torical inheritance, as mine are. I'd set up conventions on a film 
and then play with those within them. 6 

The first part of this statement is a lucid appraisal of the difference 
between his work and that of his American colleagues. His stance in regard 
to conventions has varied as his work has changed. The earliest films he 
made, between 1952 and 1957, grew out of the norms of geometrical 
painting into those of the graphic film, with important modifications of 
both. But beginning with A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957), he 
made animated cartoons until 1964. They include Inner and Outer Space 
(i960), Horse Over Teakettle (1962), Breathing (1963), and the climactic 
Fist Fight (1964), in which cartooning broke up and led back to the fast 
motion cinema of his earlier works. 

In the cartoon films there is a shift in his working process. Instead of 
creating the film directly in front of the camera as he was shooting it, he 
began to draw the lines and figures of individual frames on paper and 
cards. By flipping through the cards he could approximate the experience 
of the film. The actual shooting became more of an exercise in translation 
than creation. In an interview with Jonas Mekas, he spoke of Recreation 
as having been made 

in a kind of deliberate feeling of wonderment: "What the hell 
will this look like?" you know, that kind of thing, and "I don't 
want to know . . . whether this is cinema or not; it doesn't mat- 
ter." Then I would go back and try to incorporate some notions 
of control and construction. 7 

By introducing the middle step of creation on cards, he refined his ani- 
mation but diminished the dynamics achieved in his first works. 

The weight of his interests as an artist lies in the creation and break- 
down of illusions. This, he seems to believe, becomes clearest when the 
materials of the illusions are depersonalized (and demythologized), or as 
he has said, "conventional." A letter about his undeveloped interests in 



three-dimensional films (inspired by a three-dimensional shadow play of 
Ken Jacobs) led to a discussion of his general aspirations in making art: 

It has to do with revealing the artifices instead of concealing 
them. The fact of that rabbit sitting inside the magician's hat is 
the real mystery, not how it's dissimulated. The hat should be 
transparent and show the rabbit. 

So it's again the threshold area that defines the form. 
Thresholds for my own exploration have been: 

1. The fusion of stills into flowing motion and back again (flip 
cards, collage film, sculpture). 

2. Transition from literary convention to other — i.e., abstraction 
and back again (collage films — Pat's B'day). 

3. Transition from subconscious to conscious awareness — i.e., 
slow motion sculpture, fast paced film. 

4. Transition from 2D to 3D — transparent mutoscopes and cut 
out sculpted mutoscopes — rotating bent wires. 8 

Naturally the notion of the "threshold" is more vital to Breer's aes- 
thetic than that of "conventions." Conventions are, in fact, a means for 
him to come upon a threshold more immediately. Of the four realms of 
exploration, the first is the most important; for it extends throughout his 
work and tends to encompass the other three. In Jamestown Baloos (1957) 
and Eyewash (1959), he integrated the techniques of his earliest anima- 
tions with those of Recreation I in a process of questioning and defining 
the boundaries between still and moving images, and the corollary dis- 
tinction between "actualities" and flat pictures. 

Jamestown Baloos jarringly juxtaposes all of his previous techniques 
and aesthetic strategies and invents a few more. The film has a triptych 
form of two black-and-white sections with martial soundtracks bracketing 
a silent one in color. In changes of tempo from very rapid to moderately 
slow and back again, he switches from the hand-drawn outline of a figure 
or an object to a magazine collage of that figure or the object itself. In all 
three parts he mixes satiric collages of Napoleon and the instruments of 
warfare with glimpses of landscapes and abstract textures and geometries, 
but he keeps the film in an unresolved suspense by subverting the viewer's 
psychological urge to fix one of these elements as the central theme and 
reduce the other two to sub-themes. 

The transitions between themes within the three sections revolve 
around thresholds between motion and stillness. A series of watercolors, 
each on the screen for three or four frames, vibrates before the lens as if 
they were quickly shaken by hand. Collage gondolas move against static 
cityscapes of Venice. Then a barrage of single-frame landscapes by old 
masters rushes across the screen. They are arranged so that a tree or an 
image in one occupies approximately the same place in the next, giving a 



sense of continuity amid violent change. Finally Breer incorporates very 
short shots of actual landscapes, whose spatial expanses are revealed in 
fragmentation by a few panning frames after or before a brief hold. The 
mesh of flat work and photography in depth, with the pronounced accent 
on the former, is so fine and subtle that the film does not lose its carefully 
balanced tension in these transitions. 

Most of Eyewash derives from photography of actual entities rather 
than from collages, drawings, or flat photographs. Reflections of light on 
water, blurred fast panning motions, passing trucks filmed through a tel- 
ephoto lens, a rolling ball, single-frame street scenes, and a humorous and 
exciting shot of a workman just at the point of sawing through a blue 
plank, are the crucial images here. Breer cuts on motion, shifting depths, 
speeds, colors, and directions in the shot-to-shot junctures, while he or- 
ganizes the whole film in terms of repeated images and waves of rhythmic 
intensity and relaxation. Eyewash anticipates many of Stan Brakhage's 
Songs, made a decade later, but it lacks the visionary coherence and pas- 
sionate commitment that Brakhage with the advantage of ten years of 
development was able to bring to his materials. More than any other film 
of Breer's, this one recalls the strategies of Le Ballet Mecanique, especially 
when Leger moves out of his studio and organizes his glimpses of Paris 
into a chain of associations. 

With Eyewash Breer ended his work in defining the threshold between 
flat animation and photographed actuality by means of freezes and move- 
ments fractions of a second long. He would return to the combination of 
both types of imagery in Fist Fight (1964) but through utterly different 
means. Most of his subsequent cinema in the sixties was flatwork, with 
two significant exceptions, Hommage to Jean Tinguely's Hommage to 
New York (i960) and Pat's Birthday (1962), both studies of the work of 
other artists for whom he had an affinity, Jean Tinguely and Claes Olden- 
burg. After finishing Eyewash, Breer moved back to the United States. His 
return coincided with the decline of Abstract Expressionism as the domi- 
nant movement in American painting and slightly preceded the emergence 
of Pop Art. Tinguely and Oldenburg are both makers of comic objects, 
toward which they maintain a psychological distance alien to the Romantic 
commitment of the Abstract Expressionists to their works. It seems natural 
then that they are the artists toward whom he would gravitate and with 
whom he would associate. The two films on these artists represent the 
severest deviation from his Parisian work. 

Breer had introduced cartoon elements into several of his early films, 
especially Cats (1956) and Far Avion (1957). But after his return to Amer- 
ica the cartoon dimension grew as his concern with radical speed dimin- 
ished but did not disappear. In Horse Over Teakettle (1962) he directly 
attacked the conventions of the cartoon while working within it. There he 
stuck to colored crayon drawings of a woman with an umbrella, a frog, 
and other easily identifiable creatures and objects. However, he transforms 

2 7 8 


and moves these conventional figures within an intricate orchestration of 
expectations and surprises involving changes of scale, direction, virtual 
depth, and above all movement off the screen at all four edges. 

Of the American films he made before Fist Fight, only Blazes (1961) 
touches upon his central concern with the border in cinema between mo- 
tion and stillness. Here he painted one hundred cards with bold, free- 
drawn shapes and rough calligraphic lines; then he shuffled them and pho- 
tographed them in irregular alternations of one and two frames each. With 
each shuffling he varied the rhythm of durations. There are short sections 
in which two images flicker between each other in single-frame changes; 
there are also single frames inserted after twenty of blackness, and some 
are held up to half a second on the screen. In the end he zooms in on a 
series of cards with three or four frames for each movement. A loud click- 
ing sound gives an auditory equivalent to the rush of similar and recurrent 
designs before the eyes. 

At the same time he translated his principles of animation into sculp- 
ture. By hand-cranking his mutoscopes of slightly varied cards, the ob- 
server could control the degree of stillness or motion and thus provide 
himself with the illusion of continuous change or destroy that illusion. The 
mutoscopes also provided a means of breaking down the theatrical situa- 
tion of cinema, which Breer has always held in suspicion. In two interviews 
he said: 

I got disoriented by the theatrical situation of film, by the fact 
that you have to turn out the lights and there is a fixed audi- 
ence, and when you turn out the lights you turn on the projec- 
tion light and you project the piece of magic on the wall. I felt 
that this very dramatic, theatrical situation in some ways, just 
by the environment of the movie house, robbed some of the 
mystery of film from itself. The idea to make mutoscopes was to 
bring movies again into a gallery situation, where I can have a 
concrete object, which gave this mysterious result in motion. 

All my art ideas have to do with material I was using. ... I 
wanted to examine it more closely, and bring it into the open, 
to expose it. 9 

In the middle of the decade, Breer's sculptural work shifted from mak- 
ing mutoscopes to constructing objects that moved so slowly that they 
would seem stationary when directly observed, but when ignored for a 
period of time their shift of location would be obvious. At the same time, 
the dimensions of the single frame re-emerged in his films with increased 
vigor and purity. 

Fist Fight, unlike any other of Breer's films, is autobiographical. In it 
he contemplates and manipulates "still" images from his past in what is 
apparently a moving family album. Black-and-white photographs of his 
wife as a girl, of himself at his work table, of children, a wedding party, 



and many friends and personal scenes are scrambled together with frag- 
ments of cartoons (including a quotation from Horse Over Teakettle), a 
handwritten letter passing too fast to be legible, fingers, a bare foot, a 
mouse in a cartoon trying to turn on a lamp, and a real mouse falling 
through black space — to isolate a few of the more striking images. 

By treating the photographs as he had the geometrical shapes of his 
earlier animations, Breer seems to be trying to distance himself from these 
images of his life. The personal material blends into the animations and 
fragments without assuming a privileged emphasis. At times it seems as if 
they were not personal pictures at all, but simply the most convenient 
photographs for a film intensely determined to explore further ambiguities 
of stillness and motion, painterly surface and illusory depth. 

The film articulates itself in bursts separated by sections of blackness. 
In each burst a technique or series of images may dominate or provide a 
matrix, but all the elements (photographs, cartoons, abstractions) occur in 
each cluster. At first the flickering alternation of photographs and later the 
cartoon elements seem to be the center of concentration, yet the film resists 
giving a sense of development. In a note for Pat's Birthday, Breer had 
written, "Why things happen after each other in this film is because there 
isn't room for everything at once. But it's really a still picture and time is 
not supposed to move in one direction any more than it does in the 
other. " 10 Although he does end that film with a recapitulation in brief shots 
of the actions already seen, Pat's Birthday follows the course of a day's 
outing, but in Fist Fight the tension between the human lives schematically 
depicted in the photographs and the recurrent bursts of images comes 
closer to the atemporality he claimed for the earlier film. Since Fist Fight, 
at eleven minutes, is the longest of Breer's films after the leisurely paced 
thirteen minutes of Pat's Birthday, it takes on a quality of duration foreign 
to his earlier work; some of the image clusters seem as long and as integral 
as Recreation or Blazes. 

Had Breer chosen to use the penultimate scene as the last, it would 
have resolved the tensions he elaborated earlier. In that section, he 
wrenched the camera off the animation table while it was still running. 
Then he walked out of his studio with it, filming the walls and his shoes 
as he went, until he was in the open and could photograph the sun. By 
returning to the bursts of animation and photographs after this gesture, 
he further maintained the equilibrium of the phrases and qualified the most 
expressionistic moment to occur in his cinema. 

After Fist Fight Breer made three remarkably controlled animated films 
which return to the forms and themes of his earliest work but with more 
power and confidence than ever before. These three closely related films, 
66 (1966), 651 (1969), and 70 (1970), place Breer for the first time among 
the major colorists of the avant-garde. Each film sets itself a clearly defined 
problem involving color, speed, illusion, and image-shape, and even 
though they are unquestionably units of a series, they do not overlap or 
borrow from each other. Each fully satisfies its own postulated conditions 


(a) The graphic cinema: se- 
quential strips from Viking 
Eggeling's Symphonie Diagon- 
ale (not consecutive frames). 

(b) Sequential strips 
from Hans Richter's 
Rkytkmus 21. 

(c) Robert Breer's Recreation. 

(d) Peter Kubelka's 

(e) Peter Kubelka's 








of operation; seen together they clarify the subtle problems the film-maker 
has posed for cinema. 

In Recreation and Blazes the film-maker had explored the speeding up 
of perception through extended series of single frames of essentially dif- 
ferent images strung together. In 66 he made the single frame seem to 
move faster by injecting it into a static, long-held, geometrical composi- 
tion. When the eye is confronted by a cluster of different single-frame 
shots, it adjusts to seeing each of them. As the adjustment succeeds, the 
z /z 4 of a second seems to grow longer. But when the eye relaxes on a 
continuous image, the sudden insertion of a single frame of something 
different seems much faster. 

In 66 Breer deals with the problem of color in terms of the problem 
of speed of perception. He made a series of colored cards by cutting and 
applying shapes of zippetone, a highly reflective plastic tape. When filmed, 
the zippetone colors create evener and more vibrant hues than photo- 
graphed surfaces that have been painted or colored by crayon. Breer's cen- 
tral strategy in this film was to place a colored shape with a white back- 
ground on the screen for several seconds, then to interrupt it with another, 
usually smaller shape of a different color placed in what would be the 
background area of the initial image. The difference of color and the ec- 
centricity of placement of the single-frame shot tended to cause a slight 
visual overtone when the first image reappeared. 

Breer's next film, 651, deals directly with depth illusions and achieves 
its color effects by almost completely reducing the film to black-and-white. 
The background for shapes is again white, except when the film slowly 
fades toward dark gray or tints the whole surface blue. Against this white- 
ness the outline figures of a hexagonal column, a wheel, a beam, and a 
door seem to sweep onto the screen from an offscreen axis and move 
through the screen's cubic space in depth. The column, which is the first 
and the pace-setting form, cuts through the lower left-hand edge of the 
frame and disappears in depth as if it sliced through our field of vision for 
a section of its circular movement. The door appears to swing inward from 
a base at the bottom of the screen. The plank moves like the column, but 
outward, hinged at the lower right, and the wheel alone crosses the screen 
horizontally without emerging or receding in depth. 

The film derives its major rhythm from the pacing of these four peri- 
odic movements. At first they are intercut in different combinations. At 
their most intense, all four flicker together with one frame apiece. This not 
only retards their motion by four times; it destroys the illusion of depth 
by permitting the eye to register each position as a flat drawing. The di- 
alogue between the literal flatness of the screen and its illusory depth takes 
on a further dimension when a series of flat-line forms and simple shapes 
make rapidly disappearing configurations in the center of the screen while 
the three-dimensional illusions continue to operate from the edges. At his 
most complex, Breer lets us see smooth movements in depth and affir- 


mations of the flatness of the screen at the same time in flickering changes 
and in juxtaposition. 

Breer transformed the geometry and intensified the colors of 69 in his 
next film, 70. Here he used spray paint, which spreads over his white cards 
as a borderless affirmation of pure color, as well as bounded solid colors. 
He complemented the shapelessness of the sprayed cards with a play be- 
tween hard-edged and soft forms throughout the film. In its first few sec- 
onds, he reveals his approach to color and shape separately. A series of 
sprayed cards passes in single-frame changes. Then, in two-frame shots, 
an amorphous shape, more like a hole, moves across the screen, alternately 
white on gray and gray on white. The pure colors pass again, this time in 
five-frame holds. Lastly, the hole reappears, constantly changing colors 
and switching whiteness from figure to ground. 

Rotating tubes cut through sections of deep space; triangles and rec- 
tangles revolve, turning upon the upper and lower horizontals of the frame 
as axes. As they overlap, the areas they hold in common take on new 
colors at the same two-frame rate of change that rushes all shapes within 
the film through the spectrum. This illusory depth is complicated by the 
intermeshing of a second geometry of centric circles with their own color 

Solid colors in rapid alternation tend to lose their vibrancy. They blend 
toward whiteness. Breer utilized this paling effect in 69 where color inten- 
sities were low and subtle. In 70 he regained some of the saturation of 66 
with the use of the spray paints and the two-frame, rather than single- 
frame rhythm. Furthermore, the five-frame holds of pure colors near the 
beginning of the film set up an anticipation of color textures which focuses 
the attention on both the rapid exchange of geometrical solids in the mid- 
dle and the blue gradations of sprays at the end. 

In these three films Breer for the first time joined Harry Smith, Jordan 
Belson, and Bruce Baillie as one of the chief colorists of the American 
avant-garde film. 11 He did so by formulating in a new way, and out of 
impulses that extend back to his earliest films, a dialogue between color 
and shape, which, in the different ways I have noted, lies behind each of 
these film-makers' achievements in color film. 

The film career of Peter Kubelka 12 runs parallel to that of Robert Breer. 
There is no evidence that they knew of each other's work until the second 
Experimental Film Competition in Brussels (1958), by which time their 
basic approaches to film had crystallized. On the superficial level, these 
two film-makers seem to have very little in common. Breer has worked 
primarily in different forms of animation; Kubelka never has. Breer's cin- 
ema is intimately related to his work as a painter and sculptor; film-making 
was the only art Kubelka practiced until he took up music in the 1970s. 
Breer is not a polemicist; in his occasional interviews he is casual about 
theoretical concerns and exceptionally modest about his own films. Ku- 
belka has become the most determined theoretician within the avant-garde 



cinema since Stan Brakhage; he is also a fierce exponent of his own orig- 
inality, priority, and purity of influence (which, I must add, extends to a 
rejection as critical fantasy of any effort to compare him with Breer or any 
other avant-garde film-maker). Finally, Kubelka's films do not look at all 
like Breer 's. 

Their works quite unintentionally make two fundamental points: they 
define through their parallel careers the course of the late graphic cinema 
as it developed outside the evolution of the Romantic avant-garde film in 
America, and they provide a backdrop against which that evolution be- 
comes clearer and more surely proven. Since they encountered the Amer- 
ican avant-garde film as mature artists rather than in their formative pe- 
riods, we would expect to see very little of its influence in their work. 

Between 1954 and 1966 Peter Kubelka finished five films which to- 
gether amount to a little more than a half hour of screen time. The first, 
Mosaik im Yertrauen (1954-195 5) and the most recent, Unsere Afrikareise 
(1961-1966), bracket the three graphic films he made between 1957 and 
i960. The first film is so closely related to the last, and rather different 
from the middle three, that I shall postpone discussion of it until I have 
treated the graphic films. 

Before he made Mosaik im Vertrauen he had attended a term at the Cen- 
tro Sperimentale di Cinematographia in Rome, and despite their conserva- 
tism and hostility to his work, he completed his studies there in the mid- 
1950s. By 1963 he had become thoroughly familiar with the history of the 
cinema. It was at that time that he founded the Oesterreichesches Film- 
museum with Peter Konlechner, of which they remained co-curators until 
their retirement in 2001. How conscious he was of the graphic film tradition 
of the 1920s, through its major works or through its influences, is uncertain. 
Nevertheless, three of his films — Adebar (1957), Schwechater (1958), and 
Arnulf Rainer (1958-1960) — respond with progressively severe reductions 
to the structure of Eggeling's Sympbonie Diagonale and the illusionist dia- 
lectics and handling of motion in Leger's he Ballet Mecanique, Duchamp's 
Anemic Cinema, and above all in Len Lye's kinetic films. 

For instance, Lye's Rainbow Dance utilized high-contrast freeze- 
frames, which Lye used as color separators, and Trade Tattoo included 
brief figures of movement made abstract by ellipsis and cutting-on rhythm. 
Kubelka employs both of these strategies in a rigidly deductive form in 
Adebar. When he gave a seminar on his films at New York University in 
the spring of 1972 (the first public and extensive expression of his theo- 
retical position), he listed the following laws as the ordering principles of 
his film: (1) each shot is 13, 26, or 52 frames long; (2) the first and last 
frame of every shot has been frozen at 13, 26, or 52 frames; (3) there is 
a change from positive to negative or the opposite at each splice; (4) the 
sound is a loop of music made by Pygmies, with four phrases each 26 
frames long; and (5) when every possible combination of shots has been 
exhausted, the film ends. 


The subject matter of Adebar is dancing. In fact, like all of Kubelka's 
films, it was a commission; in this case as an advertisement for the Cafe 
Adebar in Vienna. The dancers were filmed against a white wall with 
strong back lighting, so that in the positive shots they seem like shadows. 
The only guide to their depth is the eclipsing of rear dancers by those in 
the foreground in the two shots perpendicular to the camera. Otherwise 
the images look almost flat. 

I have been able to distinguish six movements: a couple dancing, a 
woman twirling under a man's arm, a mass of dancing legs, several people 
rocking with their hands at their hips, and two different shots of couples 
dancing along a line of depth from the camera. Furthermore, there are two 
still shots without any intervening movement, which are almost identical. 
They always appear juxtaposed with negative-positive alternations. When 
questioned by an attentive student about these repetitions, Kubelka said it 
was the exception to his rules and that the two still shots, each thirteen 
frames long, function as a single unit. There are 64 changes of shot in the 
film. If Kubelka means each of the three elements of a shot (freeze, action, 
freeze) in positive and negative must combine with every other possible 
element, there would have to be hundreds of shots in the film. Like We- 
bern's densest compositions, this film of Kubelka's gives the impression of 
a strictly rational genesis, but it does not make its principles evident to the 

Here lies the fundamental distinction between the form of Kubelka's 
graphic films and the structural cinema, whose precursor he has claimed 
to be. In his films he hides his orderly principles by multiplying and inter- 
changing them. The films move so fast and are so complex that the viewer 
perceives their order without being aware of the laws behind them. Thus 
for the viewer the experience of Adebar, Scbwechater, or Arnulf Rainer, 
is on the formal level not fundamentally different from that of a Brakhage 
film, even though the principles governing Kubelka's editing are rational 
and Brakhage's intuitive. The structural cinema, on the other hand, de- 
pends upon the viewer's ability to grasp the total order of the film — its 
shape — and the principles which generate it while he is viewing it, as will 
be illustrated in chapter twelve of this book. 

The result of Adebafs laws is a form remarkably similar to Breer's 
Form Phases, where a design is frozen, slowly changed into a new frozen 
position, then jumps to a different static form and changes. Both films 
employ reverse field variations in some of the cuts between static holds. 
This similarity results from similar attempts at purifying the achievements 
of the early graphic cinema. Furthermore, both forms point to an aesthetic 
of the single frame as the crux of an investigation of the threshold between 
stillness and movement. 

The fundamental principle of Kubelka's film theory is that there is no 
movement in cinema. Every frame is a still picture. In an interview with 
Jonas Mekas, he says: 



Cinema is not movement. This is the first thing. . . . Cinema is a 
projection of stills — which means images which do not move — 
in a very quick rhythm. And you can give the illusion of move- 
ment, of course, but this is a very special case, and the film was 
originally invented for this special case. . . . 

Where is, then, the articulation of cinema? Eisenstein, for 
example, said it's the collision of two shots. But it's very strange 
that nobody has ever said it's not between shots but between 
frames. It's between frames where cinema speaks. And then, 
when you have a roll of very weak collisions between frames — 
this is what I would call a shot, when one frame is very similar 
to the next frame. 13 

When he made Adebar, the film-maker had not yet clearly formulated this 
position. In that film the frozen image seems to act as a surrogate for the 
single frame, as he came to use it in his film of the following year, Scbwe- 

The generative laws of Scbwechater are much more complex, (i) The 
intercutting between black and images follows a repetitive pattern of one 
frame of black, one of an image, two black, two image, four black, four 
image, eight black, eight image, sixteen black, sixteen image; then it begins 
again with one black frame, etc. (2) There are 1440 frames in the film, 
equaling exactly one minute of screen time. (3) There are twelve passages 
of both image and leader tinted red for ninety continuous frames. These 
colored sections become progressively more frequent as the film moves 
toward its conclusion. (4) Two sounds, one low and the other high, occur 
during the red passages. (5) There are four different images within the 
film: (a) a woman sitting at a table while a hand pours beer into a glass 
before her; (b) a side-view of that woman drinking; (c) a group of people 
in a restaurant; (d) beer foaming in a champagne glass. Every other time 
one of these images, or as little as one frame from them, appears on the 
screen, it is negative. (6) Shots (a) and (b) follow an exceptionally complex 
rule: (a) is thirty frames long, (b) is ninety frames. These frames are con- 
sidered as numbered units. Whenever Kubelka wants to use a part of shot 
(a), he must use that number corresponding to what its place would be in 
the film if the film were a simple loop. For instance, he can use the thirtieth 
frame from (a) as the thirtieth, sixtieth, ninetieth, etc., frame of his film. 
He can use the last frame of (b) as the ninetieth, 180th, etc., frame. Fur- 
thermore, he can use a given frame from these two shots only once. 
Whether its use is positive or negative is determined by the previous image 
from the same shot sequence. 

In his lectures at New York University, the film-maker did not indicate 
by what rules he inserted parts of shots (c) or (d) or frames of white leader 
into the film. Nor did he indicate any law which determined how many 
frames of any shot he would use in the spaces provided by the first law. I 
assume these were to be subjective decisions. 


In Schwechater there are many single-frame shots. No image extends 
for more than nine frames of what he would call "weak articulations." 
What we experience then when we look at Schwechater is a flickering, 
pulsating fragmentation of related gestures and movements syncopated 
with differing rhythms of blackness and a superimposed redness that is 
accented by sound. According to Kubelka, he created the structural image 
of fire and of a running brook through the montage of this film without 
recourse to images of flames or water deflected by rocks. 

The purpose behind the elaborate sixth law was to sustain a sense of 
two simultaneous loops, one three times as long as the other, pulsing 
throughout the film. Its effect, however, is not quite that of a loop. The 
pouring and the drinking in Schwechater become analyzed, simultaneous 
motions. By intercutting them and mixing the other shots and leaders with 
them, Kubelka pushes them toward the condition of stasis, of which the 
single-frame image is the ultimate reduction. Like Breer's much later in- 
termeshing of rotating geometrical forms in 69, rapid intercutting both 
flattens, slows down, and even momentarily freezes each of the illusory 

However, in his third graphic film Kubelka reached the extreme of his 
reductiveness. Arnulf Rainer is a montage of black-and-white leader with 
white sound (a mixture of all audible frequencies) and silence. For the film- 
maker it is an evocation of the dawn, of day and night, of thunder and 
lightning. The formal laws which govern its construction are considerably 
more elaborate than those of either previous film, and they include a wide 
range of subjective decisions. 

The composition of Arnulf Rainer is so complicated that none of its 
formal operations can be discovered by watching the film during a normal 
projection. Instead, one perceives an intricate pattern of synchronous clus- 
ters of flashes and explosions of sounds mixed with asynchronous patterns 
which evolve, recall, or anticipate other patterns on one of the two levels 
of sound and picture. At times the flickering of the black-and-white frames 
proceeds in silence, to be followed by the same or a similar rhythm on the 
soundtrack while the screen stays white or black. At a different moment 
the sound rhythm will forecast the visual pattern which appears in silence 
or with a different, and therefore not synchronized sound. The whole film 
is interwoven with such transfers of meter from sound to picture, or the 
opposite, in phrases that may be (according to Kubelka's notes) 288, 192, 
144, 96, 72, 48, 36, 24, 18 16, 12, 9, 8, 6, 4, or 2 frames in duration. 
There are 16 sets of phrases, each one 576 frames long (24 seconds). 
Within each of the 16 sections except one, the metrical patterns accelerate 
their changes as the phrases move form the longest to the shortest in fixed 
stages. Since there are no distinct, visible boundaries between the sections 
or the phrases inside of the sections, this structure is vaguely perceived as 
a seemingly endless series of irregular accelerations. A psychological after- 
effect helps to emphasize the subdivisions. After each wave of acceleration 
a transparent halo-like square seems to hover off the screen for a fraction 



of a second. As the pattern of changes recommences, the floating image 
slowly (that is, slow within the terms of speed generated by the film itself) 
rejoins the actual screen. Many spectators find momentary illusions of 
color attend this effect. The force of the after-effect is to affirm the flatness 
and rectangularity of the screen almost every 24 seconds of the 6.4-minute 

The one exception to this pattern is the sixth section, which is a black 
and silent pause for all 24 seconds. At first it seems as if the film has ended, 
but it recommences with full force. Kubelka proves here that even after 
an intense barrage of infinitesimal visual and aural variations, an extended 
series of "weak articulations" immediately begins to dissolve the height- 
ened perception of frame-to-frame variations. In his criticism of Eisen- 
stein's claim that the raw power of cinema resides in the collision between 
shots, Kubelka argued that the strongest collisions are between frames, 
that it is not the shots which collide but the last frame of one and the first 
frame of the other. He would have us dispense with the very notion of the 
shot. What we call shot, he points out, is a series of frames with weak 
articulations between them; that is, a frame is exactly or almost exactly 
like the previous one in a conventional shot. The illusion of a moving 
figure in a static field is a good example of weak articulation; the only 
difference between two frames is a slight change in the position of the 
figure. Thus for Kubelka film has an absolute limit of intensity: radical 
changes of picture and sound every x A 4 th of a second. This limit is one of 
the poles of Arnulf Rainer. The other is the long black pause, the extreme 
of weak articulation. 

The film-makers who followed Kubelka in exploring the possibilities 
of the flicker film in either color or black-and-white have tended to con- 
ceive it differently. For Kubelka, Arnulf Rainer is the absolute film, the 
alpha and omega, which both defines and brackets the art. For the struc- 
tural film-makers who use the flicker form, it is the vehicle for the attain- 
ment of subtle distinctions of cinematic stasis in the midst of extreme speed 
which can be presented so as to generate both psychological and apper- 
ceptive reactions in its spectators. Although Kubelka is not closing out the 
possibility of such reactions, he created his film as both a definition of 
cinema and a generator of rhythmical ecstasy. 

The enigmatic titles, Schtvechater and Arnulf Rainer, like Adebar be- 
fore them, refer to the sponsors of the films. The former was originally 
commissioned as an advertisement for Schwechater beer. Kubelka even let 
the company dictate the images (the pseudo-elegant scene of models drink- 
ing beer as if it were champagne) in order to prove to them and to himself 
that cinema is not a matter of imagery but of frame-to-frame articulation. 
Arnulf Rainer, a Viennese painter and close friend of the film-maker, com- 
missioned a portrait of himself and his work. In the course of making it, 
Kubelka became interested first in a film of pure colors, then one in black- 
and-white, sound and silence, alternations. He titled it as a dedication, and 


perhaps as an apology for not completing the commission for which he 
was paid. 14 

Kubelka is the only film-maker I shall discuss in this book who affirms 
the absolute equality of importance between images and sound in cinema. 
Although the metrics of Adebar were determined by the fact that the sound 
phrases repeated in it are 26 frames long, and although the sounds of 
Scbwechater are skillfully and integrally utilized as structural elements, 
neither of those films quite lives up to the extreme demands of the film- 
maker's aesthetic. But with Arnulf Rainer he succeeded in making a 
graphic film which gave equal importance to sound and visuals. However, 
it is in his first film, Mosaik im Vertrauen and in his most recent, Unsere 
Afrikareise, that his theories of sound montage are most fully developed. 

Both films are organized around "synch events," to use his phrase. In 
his lectures at New York University and at Harpur college he contrasted 
ritualistic "synch events" in primitive societies with their cinematic em- 
ployment. 15 He described his pleasure at witnessing an African festival in 
which a tribe silently watched the sun set. At the very instant that the red 
disk of the sun touched the horizon line, a drum-beat broke the silence 
and the ritual festivities began. The film-maker, he admits, cannot compete 
with the ritual shaman in the "sensuality of his materials," the real sun 
and the silent community. He must make do with a pale mimesis of the 
sun by the white screen or with photographed, secondary imagery. His 
advantages over the tribal shaman, however, are two: he can speed up the 
"synch events" from a maximum of one a day to 24 each second; he can 
also combine the sound of one occasion with the image from another. The 
first of these advantages he explored in Arnulf Rainer; the second in Mo- 
saik, and more radically in Unsere Afrikareise. 

The two films have comparable structures. A number of isolated events 
are spread through them, sometimes as parallel montage and at other times 
with illusions of sequential and logical connections. In the earlier film, 
groups of images form short scenes every time they recur, but in the later 
one, each shot, in the traditional sense, tends to be independent of the one 
before and after it, except through connections which the film-maker in- 
vented with kinetic and sound montage. A set of two or three sequential 
shots with the same subject or location would be the exception in this film. 

The suspended elements of Mosaik im Vertrauen (Mosaic in Confi- 
dence) are (1) a documentary of an historic crash on the Le Mans raceway 
that killed several people; (2) a bum who helps a woman take in her 
laundry and then spends the night talking with workers in a railroad yard; 
(3) an elegant model-type, Michaela, and her chauffeur; (4) a cocky young 
man standing in a doorway with the woman who had earlier taken in the 
laundry; and (5) railroad imagery. This list does not exhaust the pictorial 
elements of the film. 

The film weaves among these fragmented scenes mixing prolepses, 
flashbacks, ellipses, and synecdoches with illusions of temporal and spatial 


interconnections in the following ways: very early in the film a single frame 
flash of a figure straddling railroad tracks, bent over and staring through 
his legs, anticipates a later hold on that image. Toward the end of the film, 
a flashback recalls the speech of the cocky youth to the woman: "You will 
eventually fall for me," he says. In the initial presentation of the scene she 
answers, "Do you really think so?" Earlier she had used the same expres- 
sion to the bum helping her take in her wash. The flashback follows a 
scene of the model getting out of her car, which has also been inserted 
earlier during the initial doorway presentation. When her elegant shoe 
touches the ground, the "synch event" is a direct cut to the sight and sound 
of the racecar crashing at Le Mans; she twists her hips to a carefully placed 
fragment of music followed by the key word from the youth's speech, 
"verf alien." A repetition of that word brings with it a flashback to the 
couple in the doorway. The mesh of visual and aural associations in this 
brief section of the film is typical of its total construction. 

The fragmentation and intertwining of scenes give Mosaik a structure 
similar to two contemporary, late trance films in America, Brakhage's Re- 
flections on Black and even more so its model, Christopher MacLaine's 
The End. On a purely formal level, the rhetoric of Kubelka's cinematic 
conjunctions, whereby diverse strands of themes are fitted together, 
evolved toward a language of metaphor precisely parallel to independent 
developments in America. The essential distinction between the American 
work and his is the intensified Romantic inwardness of the American film 
in contrast to Kubelka's perspective as "an anthropologist" of the "Stone 
Age" aspects of contemporary man, to use two of the film-maker's favorite 
expressions. In his skeptical naturalism, he refuses a privileged perspective 
for himself; the artist, according to his conception, shows to his contem- 
poraries and to posterity what life is and was like in the dark ages of his 
own time. "We are in fact very near brothers of the animals (let's say the 
mammals); we have made a more complicated society, but in their lives 
and loves they are approximately the same," he told an interviewer. 
"When I was 19 or so," he added, referring to the time immediately before 
making Mosaik, 

I had a period when I was wary of being a part of humanity, 
and I symbolically signed a declaration of my resignation from 
humanity — "Peter Kubelka" — but in fact you cannot do it with- 
out staying still and dying. Despite the beautiful moments, it's a 
horrible situation — I mean, we are some sort of growing thing 
on a round ball in this ridiculous, black universe, there's no pur- 
pose — it's a joke, anyway. 16 

For Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa) Kubelka recorded about 
ten hours of sound — talk, animals, noises, bits of radio music, all either 
separate or combined — and a few hours of images while in Africa. When 
he returned to Vienna, he transcribed all the sounds phonetically, using 


the techniques of symphonic scoring for passages of several kinds of sound. 
Then he memorized the book of his transcriptions. He also clipped three 
frames from every shot he had taken, mounted them on a card, and cross- 
indexed the cards in terms of rhythm, color, subject, and theme. The to- 
tality of pictures and sounds he collected he called his "vocabulary." 

Like a poet he could then draw upon that vocabulary in the creative 
act of editing. One of Kubelka's fundamental principles is that a film must 
be reconceived between the shooting and the editing. The film-maker, he 
told his classes, should abandon any preconceptions he may have had 
while planning or shooting his film once it is shot. Then he must look 
freshly at his "vocabulary" to see what new form it might take. In the six 
years between shooting and finishing Unsere Afrikareise, that is what he 

Kubelka isolated scenes with specific emotional vectors in order to 
reorganize them through sound and picture montage. He told Jonas 

My films have a function (this goes for the African film) — I play 
with the emotions and try to tear the emotions loose from the 
people, so that they they would gain distance to their emotions, 
to their own feelings. This is one of my main tasks: to get dis- 
tance to the whole existence, you see ... I have a lot of distance. 
I always had it, and I have too much, so I feel very lonely and I 
want to communicate. You see, you have this whole range of 
emotions and these mechanisms, how the emotions are created. 
When you see certain images or hear certain sounds you have 
certain emotions. So I must always cry when I see moving 
scenes, when I see the hero getting the first prize for the biggest 
round and they play the national anthem ... I have to cry ... or 
when they bury somebody, I have to cry. At the same time, I am 
angry at myself, because I know that it's just the emotional 
mechanisms. So, with the African film. I do a lot of this, I trig- 
ger a lot of those mechanisms at the same time and create a lot 
of — at the same time — comic feelings, sad feelings. 17 

In this film Kubelka abandoned single-frame montage in order to cre- 
ate a seductive illusion of reality. He focuses the speed of perception on 
the instant-to-instant relationship between sound and image. Thus a pas- 
senger boat rising upward on the sea will be combined with a fragment 
of popular romantic music just long enough to initiate an emotional surge, 
or the movement of an insect among flowers will seem to dance when 
combined with a lively tune for a few seconds. He will synchronize a cliche 
of awe — "Die game Erde . . . Die Erde ist terra" (the whole earth . . . the 
earth is terra) — with a twist of the lens which radically shifts the focus 
from a close-up leaf to the full moon; a raucous explosion of laughter is 
joined to an image of a white woman mocking an African guard; the silent 


Sphinx seems to be wondering, "What did we shoot last Tuesday?" in a 
"synch event." 

These synthetic fragments become the "words," according to the film- 
maker's own simile, with which he writes his film. They are combined in 
numerous ways, among which the commonest are (1) analogical elision, 
in which the action of one shot seems to continue incongruously into the 
next, as when the hand of a snake charmer tapping a boa is meshed with 
the hand of a hunter lighting a pipe for an African woman, (2) emotional 
antithesis — for example, the combination of the sad gaze of a dying lion 
with the dance of the insect in a flower, previously mentioned; (3) visual 
illustrations of a continuous sentence on the soundtrack, as in the ironic 
sequence of a horseman, flowing water, and a low aerial sweep over run- 
ning animals accompanying the line, "We came by land, by ship, and by 
air"; (4) illusions of cause and effect, such as the hand of a hunter greeting 
Africans at screen right followed by a zebra's leg shaking toward screen 
left, as if the hunter were shaking hands with the fallen beast; and (5) the 
destruction of illusion, as in the following shot which shows why the ze- 
bra's leg was moving — it was being skinned. 

Kubelka paid close attention to the slightest variations in rhythm 
within long shots, and he accented them by sound and editing. An example 
of this would be the African woman presumably pounding grain with a 
giant pestle. With each of her blows there is a synchronous groan. Some- 
times he will let her establish a rhythm by making two or three blows 
without interruption; then he will cut at the very frame in which the pestle 
hits the block to the static head of a careass, so that the groan seems to 
come from the skeleton as if it had been hit on the head by the pestle. 
Again, the music which turned the insect's movement into a dance lends 
a terrible grace to the subsequent shot of Africans lifting the dead lion on 
to a car because their heaves are in the same close synchronization to the 
music that the insect's bounces had been. 

The illusions of Unsere Afrikareise — offscreen looks connecting dis- 
junctive scenes, cutting to the firing of guns, fusions of music and move- 
ment — are more dynamic than those of Mosaik im Vertrauen because they 
look as if they were discovered within the action (as they were) rather than 
preconceived and imposed upon it (as had been the case in his first film). 
In a film whose junctures, however radical, are preconceived, the changes 
of shot tend to be telescoped to the viewer, if only at the horizon of his 
awareness. Once such a juncture occurs it has the satisfying look of pre- 
conception, but it also allows the attention to relax slightly until the next 
telegraphing and satisfaction. By cutting his film according to imminent 
junctures as Brakhage and Markopoulos also tend to do, Kubelka keeps 
the attention close to the threshold of the single-frame event, probing the 
instant-to-instant unrolling of the film for internal rhythms and meta- 
phorical lines from which new connections spring. 

pocalypses and 


the subjective and graphic cinema of the 
late 1940s to the mythopoeic cinema of 
the 1960s can be most clearly documented 
through the films of a number of indepen- 
dent film-makers working in relative iso- 
lation in the San Francisco area through- 
out the 1950s. The collapse of Art in 
Cinema meant, or at least coincided with, 
the dissolution of the community of 
film-makers. Where once films had been 
completed for the admittedly hostile audi- 
ence of Art in Cinema at the San Fran- 
cisco Museum of Fine Arts, now film- 
makers protected their isolation like 
hermits, often refusing to show their films 
to the few ephemeral groups that sprang 
up and soon disappeared throughout the 
country which were sincerely interested in 
viewing them. Both Harry Smith and 
Jordan Belson passed through periods of 
extreme artistic withdrawal, while Larry 
Jordan and Bruce Conner, significant 
figures of the subsequent generation, 



held ambivalent attitudes toward the exhibition and distribution of their 

The rejection of the social aspects of film production might be seen as 
part of the Beat ethos which affected in one way or another most of the 
artists in San Francisco at that time. Yet despite the attitude of the artists, 
the continuity of an aesthetic tradition spans the decade. The ironic mode 
of Sidney Peterson and especially James Broughton persists in the work of 
most of the artists to be discussed in this chapter. Christopher MacLaine, 
Ron Rice, Bruce Conner, and Robert Nelson (but not Larry Jordan) 1 found 
sufficient space within that ironic tradition to develop their unique styles. 
A persistent and pervading naivete absent in the work of their predecessors 
often vitalizes their cinematic visions. Jordan, who shares a number of 
formal concerns with the four other film-makers listed above, has moved 
away from their oscillation between irony and apocalypse. 

Christopher MacLaine 's The End (1953) terminated the highly pro- 
ductive period of film-making in San Francisco that had begun with The 
Potted Psalm. When it was made, the avant-garde movement was already 
on the way to its first temporary dissolution. The film itself bursts with 
the rhetoric of finality; it is a deliberately conclusive work. Jordan Belson, 
who reluctantly photographed the film under MacLaine's direction, pro- 
vides one link to the immediate cinematic past. The film leaves no room 
for the future. It forecasts the destruction of the world by atomic holocaust 
as the direct sequel to its projection. 

The strident language of the narration of The End mixes the prophecy 
of immediate doom with nostalgia, as if the earth were already gone; de- 
scriptions of the film's characters which insist that these characters can 
never really be known (the phrase "for reasons we know nothing about" 
recurs periodically) shift to exhortations to the audience ("Ladies and gen- 
tlemen, we have asked you before to insert yourself into the cast. Now we 
ask you to write this story"). After a brief, frozen image of a mushroom 
cloud and the ironic opening title, "The End," the narrator expounds the 
thesis of the film as we sit in the blackness: 

Ladies and Gentlemen, soon we shall meet the cast. Observe 
them well. See if they are yourselves. And if you find them to be 
so, then insert yourself into this review; for such it is, a review 
of things human, a view of things past, a vision of a world no 
longer in existence, a city among cities gone down in fire; for 
the world will no longer exist after this day. 

In six sections of varying degrees of narrative coherence, we see, and 
above all hear about, MacLaine's possessed characters. The first, Walter, 
has been rejected by his friends. We see him running purposelessly through 
streets, parks, down flights of stairs, until he is shot, unexpectedly. "For 
reasons we know nothing about," the narrator tells us as we see an un- 
known hand holding a pistol, "just at that moment, another man decided 



to blow the head off the next person he saw. Our friend was that person." 
The scenes of Walter's running situate themselves in deep perspective, into 
which he flees or out of which he escapes. Often the empty staircase or 
street rests on the screen for a few seconds before the actor suddenly enters 
from an unanticipated direction to pursue his race along the receding line 
of perspective. Among these in-depth images of flight more enigmatic im- 
ages are interspersed: street scenes, an arm with taut muscles, a tongue 
licking an ice-cream cone. Sometimes these shorter, intermediary images 
bear a direct or indirect relation to the narrative, as when the shadows of 
dancing people appear on a ceiling as the narrator refers to Walter's 
friends: "They went about their games . . . dancing the dance, and gener- 
ally forgetting themselves quite admirably." But more often, these shots 
anticipate later episodes. 

Synecdoche plays a major role in MacLaine's film, as does ellipsis. The 
combination of picture and sound at the conclusion of the next episode 
exemplifies the latter. Here Charles hides in doorways and fearfully makes 
his way through the city. We are informed that he has just killed his land- 
lady and her daughter, and that he cannot bear to surrender himself to 
the police. The language of the section's end is vague: "Then he remem- 
bered a place he had often thought of before, and he walked toward it, 
still enjoying his walk. With his last dime, he removed himself from the 
threat of red tape and embarrassment, and the slate was already clean." 
Two elliptical images clarify this conclusion. First we see Charles pass 
through a ten-cent turnstile; then the camera pans up to the Golden Gate 
Bridge. In the combination of picture and sound, both indirect in them- 
selves, we learn that he entered Golden Gate Park and jumped from the 

Next, in presenting the suicide of John, a failed poet turned successful 
comedian, the film-maker uses several previously mysterious images as 
metaphors for his narrative. The texture of the metaphors is underlined 
by the arbitrary mixture of black-and-white shots in a predominantly color 
film. For instance, the black-and-white head of a sleeping bum is intercut 
with the color pictures of John's false friends, who calmly listen to his pre- 
suicide speech and applaud it as his best performance. When he leaves the 
room where, exclusively in close-ups, he had been talking and playing 
Russian roulette, the picture switches to black-and-white shots of hands 
playing a piano and a black man dancing. "Someone else took the floor, 
and John was forgotten. Applause went to the living." The suicide itself, 
before a brick wall on which "pray" has been painted, cuts from its col- 
ored details to these same black-and-white metaphors. The dying man's 
collapsing legs are compared to the dancer's; his dead body to that of the 
sleeping bum. 

In the fourth section, in which Paul, a beautiful young man, decides 
to give himself to the ugliest of lepers to test the authenticity of love, color 
and black-and-white intermesh in the action itself. Scenes of Paul by the 
ocean are a mixture of both film stocks. The relationship between picture 


and sound had become progressively more indirect in the three earlier 
episodes, with more and more of the burden of action falling on the words. 
Here we see Paul wandering by the sea in a garden of statues. He is playing 
his flute, and he finally walks into a public building; we are told that he 
will seek passage to a leper colony. But the apocalyptic vision of the open- 
ing speech of the film returns when the narrator says, "He will get about 
as far as the information desk. Then his time will be over, along with 

The process of abstraction on the visual level of the film reaches its 
apogee in the next episode. Here we are asked to create our own story. 
"Here is a character." We see a man in a red shirt, played by the film- 
maker, throwing a knife into a board. "Here is the most beautiful music 
on earth." We hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "Here are some pic- 
tures. What is happening?" The pictures include the facade of a house, a 
monumental archway, the tensed arm we had often seen before, and more 
shots of the man and his knife-throwing. 

As if unable to tolerate the extremity of ambiguity with which he has 
confronted us, he begins to make a story for us with echoes of St. Paul on 
the road to Damascus: 

He is a good boy, but somehow we feel he is up to no good. 
Someone has hurt him. But he has got his ego back, and he will 
assert himself now. Someone is in the house. Why is he hesitat- 
ing? Why is he going into the house? No, he will enter and de- 
stroy, perhaps? Listen, I know no more about the story than 
you do, but I know that at this point he was suddenly both 
blind and dumb, and he takes this as a message from somebody 
he'd better accept as Master, and walks away from the house 
and its occupant. Then the world and its music come back to 
him, and he hums a little song and hears an echo. 

The camera frames a cross in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. 
Then as the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is heard, we 
see puppets and human feet dancing to the music in images that had been 
proleptic flashes earlier in the film. 

The tactic of telling more than one promises to tell or more even than 
one claims to know had been used earlier in the film toward a more pes- 
simistic end. When the screen went black after the shooting of Walter, the 
narrator said: 

If there were only more time, we could have the story of the un- 
happy young man who decided to blow Walter's brains out on 
bis last day. We could follow him through his tribulations in the 
courthouse, could follow him into solitary confinement; could sit 
with him while his head was being shaven as he lay whimpering 
and alone, confused and defeated. We could walk beside him 



down the gray and sanitary prison corridor toward the mercy 
we offer to those of us who run amok. We could watch through 
the window, when he strangles to death trying to catch a breath 
to say "mama." Well, we have not enough time for all of the 
stories. Let us go on. Maybe you will see yourself. 

The narrator himself seems to be confused about whether there is not 
enough time to tell the stories or not enough time for the stories to happen; 
presumably Walter's killer will die with all of us in the immediate holo- 
caust. The intentional confusion in the narrative reflects rhythmic alter- 
nations and paradoxes of gloom and optimism in the whole of the film. 
After the conversion in the middle of the fourth episode, the tone of the 
film suddenly becomes joyous. The final story, a pantomime of unsatisfied 
desire, does not end bitterly, nor does it have a verbal commentary. We 
see two figures on the beach — a young man trying to light a match as the 
waves are lapping over his hands, and a young woman who discovers two 
pipes which lose their bright colors as soon as she tries to puff on them. 
Eventually, they see each other and rush together, open-armed. But before 
they can make contact they fall next to each other writhing in the sand. 
This fable is resolved by the happy image of a woman riding a white horse 
in slow motion, intercut with a stream of water hitting a tree. The com- 
bination of these two images is the sensual climax of the film. It takes us 
far from the despair of the opening sections. But now that doom has been 
finally removed from the foreground of our attention, the atomic bomb 
explodes, a mushroom cloud rises, and the film ends in a shattering of the 
title, "The End." 

The extraordinary ambition of The End looks forward to the great 
achievements of the mythopoeic film. MacLaine came to cinema a little 
too late to find conviction in the trance film. In The End he made his 
major statement through a form that could not contain it. Brakhage, dur- 
ing his first stay in San Francisco, saw The End in 1953, before it disap- 
peared from sight for the next ten years. Two years later, perhaps under 
its influence, he too tried to get beyond the trance film by combining three 
episodes with a unifying theme in Reflections on Black. Later, after the 
first Film-Makers' Cooperative was founded, Brakhage sought out 
MacLaine and helped put his films into distribution. The formal achieve- 
ments which make The End a fascinating work — the combination of color 
and black-and-white, the proleptic use of metaphor, the dialectic of doom 
and redemption — can be found in a more integrated and full achieved way 
in Brakhage's Dog Star Man. Furthermore, in Blue Moses Brakhage refined 
some of the tactics of direct address and indirect narration which in 
MacLaine's original, although they are brilliantly employed, are drowned 
in the naive urgency of his statement. 

After a hiatus of five years, we encounter the next significant achieve- 
ment in the complex ironic tradition that extends from James Broughton 
through MacLaine. Bruce Conner made A Movie in 1958 as an extension 


of his collage sculpture. Aside from the titles (which include a comically 
long hold on the film-maker's name), all the images of Conner's film were 
culled from old newsreels, documentaries, and fiction films. The natural 
irony of the collage film, which calls attention to the fact that each element 
quoted in the new synthesis was once part of another whole, thereby un- 
derlining its status as a piece of film, creates a distance between the image 
depicted and our experience of it. Montage is the mediator of collage. 
Conner extends that mediated distance by introducing bits of blank film, 
academy leader, and stray titles ("End of part four" or "The End" near 
the beginning of the film), as well as reintroducing the title he gave the 
whole — A Movie — and his name at several points in the middle of the 

Unlike MacLaine, Conner is not naive in his vision of doom. Nor are 
the intellectual rhythms of A Movie, which move between the terrible and 
the ridiculous, part of a general interior drift, like the desperate but gradual 
postulation of hope before the finish of The End; Conner deliberately and 
carefully orchestrated the twists and changes of pace within his film. There 
is an early sequence which characterizes Conner's ambivalent manipulation 
of found images and which demonstrates his visionary stance at the same 
time. We see a submarine, the movement of whose periscope is intercut 
with a 1940s nudie film of Marilyn Monroe to suggest that the periscope 
operator is watching a peep-show. His excited reaction, which must orig- 
inally have come while sighting an enemy ship, gets a laugh when we 
translate it to the voyeuristic context. The submarine fires a torpedo, con- 
tinuing the sexual metaphor for comic effect while adding a hint of terror. 
The explosion of the torpedo becomes, through montage, an atomic bomb 
blast; the explosion puts the brake on our laughter with a moment of 
shock. The shock slowly wears off with the recognition of the visual grace 
of the mushroom cloud. 

A sequence of dangerous stunts, which are comic because of their 
approach to disaster without actual harm, precedes a sequence of battles 
which are shocking in their deadly activity. Graceful images which only 
indirectly suggest the possibility of death (a tightrope walker, descending 
parachutes) shift the tension after an onslaught of horror. The final se- 
quence of the film, derived from a Cousteau underwater documentary, 
provides a symbol for ironies and ambiguities upon which the whole col- 
lage is organized. Symbolism becomes possible only when the intensity of 
irony diminishes by becoming a second-degree distancing — the irony of an 
irony. Within the space of this distancing, a mediating figure represents 
us, the viewers, within the film. First the camera follows a school of fish. 
Then we see that this shot had been from the perspective of a scuba diver, 
our mediator, who, leaving the fish, discovers a sunken ship. Its wreckage 
has become beautiful through a covering of barnacles. The narrativity and 
the mystery of this sequence partially derive from the interspersing of 
pauses of black leader between the shots. Both qualities can enter the film 
only when the ironic pressure of viewing the individual shots as film gar- 



bage suddenly diminishes. In the second-degree distancing, we simultane- 
ously experience the mediation and realize we are watching film collage. 
The climax of the section creates a metaphor for this disjunction: as the 
diver descends into the hull of the ship the camera shoots upward at the 
sun reflected on the surface of the sea. 

Conner's subsequent film, Cosmic Ray (1961), emphasizes the dy- 
namic integration of visual materials over ideological montage. The 
method of this integration is the imposition of a rhythmical pulse on all 
shots in the film; the shots include academy leader, end titles, flashes, 
phrases such as "Head" or "Start," a nude female dancer — often in su- 
perimposition with flashing lights — and bits of old films (advertisements, 
cartoons, and especially war documentaries). Ray Charles, singing "Tell 
Me What I Say," reinforces the tempo of the montage with a rock beat 
on the soundtrack. 

Four fragments of an old Mickey Mouse cartoon frame the climax of 
the film and provide its ironic center. The first image of Mickey gets a 
laugh from its sheer incongruity in a film elaborating a metaphor of sex 
and war. Next we see a huge cannon pointed at Mickey's head. When it 
fires, Conner cuts rapidly to anti-aircraft weapons and cannon firing from 
old documentaries. The phallic nature of all the guns is revealed by their 
context in the montage and by the illusions of the song text. The barrages 
of firing are the orgasmic center of the film. When the cartoon comes on 
again, the cannon suddenly wilts like an exhausted penis as the song calls 
out for "just one more time." As it began, Cosmic Ray ends in a welter 
of leader and flashes. 

With his next film, Report (1965), the longest of the three, Conner 
returned to filmic assemblage (the dancer and the lights of Cosmic Ray 
had been photographed by him) and to the intense ambivalence of his first 
film at its privileged moments of secondary distancing. "Irony," according 
to Paul de Man, "engenders a temporal sequence of acts of consciousness 
which is endless." 2 Report begins in the ironical mode by seeming to be 
simultaneously about the assassination of John Kennedy and about the 
media's reportage of it. Like Conner's first two films, it proceeds, again 
gradually, toward irony by incorporating collage elements which reflect on 
the ambiguities of the initial situation. 

Repetition, in the form of loop printing, is the dominant trope of the 
film until its final expansion. Over and over again we see the motorcade, 
the rifle carried through the police station, an ambulance, Jackie waving 
as the soundtrack records a news broadcast consecutively from the time 
of the shooting to the public announcement of death. The discontinuity 
between narrative and image is the first of the second-degree ironies in the 

At unexpected points seemingly extraneous material coincides with 
phrases from the soundtrack. When the newsmen report that the "doors 
fly open" on Kennedy's car, Conner cuts to refrigerator doors opening by 
themselves from a commercial. Mention of the President's steak dinner 


coincides with the death of a bull. In irony's hall of mirrors these are 
further reflections of the discontinuity which the progress of the film wid- 
ens and never attempts to repair. 

All three of Conner's films aspire to an apocalyptic vision by engen- 
dering in the viewer a state of extreme ambivalence. A Movie and Cosmic 
Ray achieve this by alternative gestures of attraction (humor, in the first, 
eroticism in the second) and repulsion (violence in both). The change of 
pace tactic is not necessary for Report. The film utilizes the emotional 
matrix of the Kennedy assassination evoked by the newsreel material and 
above all by the verbal report, while establishing an ever-widening distance 
from it by means of the looping, the lack of synchronization with the 
sound, the metaphors, and the linguistic coincidences. It is the one film of 
the three that does not reverse its tone; it simply reveals itself more and 
more clearly as what it was at first. 

The fables of The End and the ironies of Conner's first three films 
share an apocalyptic despair which will diminish, but not die out, in their 
immediate successors. Both film-makers extended the technical discoveries 
of their early works in films that were less ambitious and prophetic but 
no less exquisite. But I shall pass by those works in this schematic chapter 
in order to clarify the outline of a tradition which has not been defined 
before. Ron Rice and Robert Nelson, who continued in this line in the 
sixties, have simplified and elongated MacLaine's form, the picaresque. 
Nelson, as if to give his film more cohesion than Rice's, incorporated stra- 
tegic elements from Conner's work. 

Ron Rice's The Flower Thief (i960) is the purest expression of the 
Beat sensibility in cinema. It portrays the absurd, anarchistic, often infan- 
tile adventures of an innocent hero (played by Taylor Mead) while indi- 
rectly providing a portrait of San Francisco at the beginning of the sixties. 
The film-maker began his film with a myth about his working methods: 
"In the old Hollywood days movie studios would keep a man on the set 
who, when all other sources of ideas failed (writers, directors), was called 
upon to 'cook up' something for filming. He was called The Wild Man. 
The Flower Thief has been put together in memory of all dead wild men 
who died unnoticed in the field of stunt." 3 

The finished film seems to preserve the spirit of its making. The uneven 
lighting, a result of using outdated raw stock, the paratactic montage, 
which suggests that there was a minimum of editing after the film was 
shot, and the casual soundtrack create this impression. Although the film 
has a distinct beginning and end, one feels that the middle could be ex- 
panded endlessly. The sequence of its episodes is arbitrary. Rice described 
the action of the film in a note for its New York premiere at Cinema 16 
(the spelling and punctuation are Rice's): 

The central character Taylor Meade a poet moves through a 
sequence of events. He steals a flower he enters. The Bagle Shop, 
returns to his home, (an abandoned powerhouse), discovers a 


man hidden in the cellar with a childs teddy bear. He washes 
the teddy bear in the bathroom then discovers the room full of 
people, and is chased. He destroys a bullshitting radio. The 
Beatniks carry on with spontaneous antics, reinacting the cruci- 
fistion, and changing the graphic meaning to the flag plainting 
at Iwo Jima. Telephone, pits, beats in lockers making love; a 
woman climbing monkey bars to reach her lover. 

The poet is searching, but he never finds love. The ending of 
the film suggests he finds something, but we do not know for he 
disappears into the sea. The audience must discover the "mes- 
sage" if one is demanded. Elements of Franz Kafka and Russian 
Humanism are there. 4 

Occasionally the soundtrack veers from random accompaniment to 
crude poetry: "The time man has spent in his brothers' prisons can now 
be measured in light years"; "Christ on opium, marijuana used in the past. 
. . . Peruvian civilization based on cocaine, America on coca-cola." Or to 
irony (an excerpt from Peter and the Wolf is heard while Mead picks 
flowers, Alexander Nevsky while he moves among firetrucks and tries to 
direct traffic). 

Ron Rice's films contain mythic elements, but his heroes are neither 
the somnambulistic dreamers of the trance film in search of sexual identity 
nor the Romantic questers of the mythic cinema. They are complex me- 
diators who move between realism and allegory within a single film in a 
chain of discontinuous roles. At times the poet of The Flower Thief be- 
comes the impersonal victim of society, as when he is tried in a cardboard 
court, upon which is written Justice, for urinating in the park. But Rice 
also has an eye for the poetic particulars of naturalism: the poet's feeding 
his cat in the powerhouse by candlelight and a brief scene of a couple 
taking a shower are high points in his film. 

Rice would have made another episodic film right after The Flower 
Thief, he even attempted two, one called The Dancing Master and another 
with his close friend, the painter and film-maker Jerry Joffen. But he lost 
interest in them. According to a story he told in 1962, Senseless, finished 
that year, came out of a film he had planned to make of Eric Nord's island. 
Nord had been an actor in The Flower Thief and the proprietor of the 
Gaslight Cafe in Venice, California, who, as the story goes, purchased an 
island from the Mexican government with the modest intention of estab- 
lishing a Utopia. Unfortunately he neglected to ascertain whether or not 
there was fresh water on his island. There was not, of course. So he and 
his pilgrims set up camp with army surplus parachutes for tents on the 
shores of Baja, California. When Rice and some other settlers arrived, 
Nord and his pioneers were gone. Unfurled lonely parachutes rocked with 
the breezes. Whether The Dancing Master was to be the Utopian film of 
Nord's island or whether Rice had planned to make an entirely different 
film on that terrestrial paradise, I do not know; nor does it matter much, 



since the nucleus of his projected film was gone either way. He had filmed 
the trip down to the camp and the deserted parachutes and whatever of 
the Mexican landscape interested him along the way. He and his friends 
stayed in Mexico, filming one thing and another as tentative films occurred 
to them. 

When Rice got to New York he pooled the various episodes and stud- 
ies together. Since there would be no plot, nor even the continuity of a 
single mediator, he pretended the film had been written by Jonas Mekas, 
who at that time was devoting many of his columns in the Village Voice 
to promoting the plotless film. On the screen he gives Mekas credit for 
"the script." It is a natural irony of circumstances that the resulting film 
of Rice's potpourri, Senseless, is by far the most carefully organized, formal 
film he left. (He died of pneumonia while in Mexico at the end of 1964.) 
It is a film thematically constructed around a trip to and from Mexico, 
with recurrent images of cars and trains (they actually sold their car ille- 
gally and slipped out of the country on the train) and much pot-smoking. 
The rhythmic intercutting of scenes gives the film its cohesion. 

Back in New York, his hometown, Rice brought together Taylor Mead 
and Winifred Bryan, a colossal black woman, to make The Queen of 
Sheba Meets the Atom Man. He did not live to complete the editing. He 
was constantly cutting it and adding new sequences. Bryan plays an al- 
coholic odalisque, and Mead much the same type as in the earlier film but 
now with overtones of a scientist. In the rough cut which Rice often 
screened to raise money to complete the film, there were two scenes of 
extended parody: a spoof on Hamlet with Jack Smith as the Prince, and 
a less direct take-off on Gregory Markopoulos' Twice a Man, which had 
been completed while The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man was in 
production. In his tentative version Rice ended his film where Markopou- 
los' began, on the Staten Island ferry. According to Taylor Mead's notes 
on the production, the Hamlet spoof was to have been preceded by an 
excerpt from the Olivier film version, and another film quotation from 
Welles's The Trial was to have introduced still another satire. 

The combination and intercutting of characters brought The Queen 
of Sheba Meets the Atom Man a step closer to the synthetic process of the 
mythic film, but at the same time the ironic gap between the actors as they 
appear on the screen and the roles they assume widened. In this enlarged 
space the film moves between epiphany and parody. The divorce between 
the subjective center of the film and the various forms it takes is reflected 
in Taylor Mead's encounter with many objects. Attracted to household 
products by advertisements, he does not understand their functions; so he 
will rub a box of cereal over his clothes or, with Chaplinesque inventive- 
ness, insert the prongs of an electric plug in his nose in the hope of getting 
high. The subjectivity of the mythopoeic protagonist is grounded in his 
privileged contact with the primal rhythms and rituals of the universe, even 
when they defeat him. Rice concentrates on describing the estrangement 
of his heroes in terms of realities. Although he may suggest a deeper, al- 


ternative core of existence for the protagonist of The Flower Thief, he is 
more reluctant to do so for the figures of his later picaresque. When re- 
lieved of the immediate estrangement of the city, they manifest their sub- 
jectivity ironically: they engage in parodies. 

A late example of the type of film being discussed is Robert Nelson's 
The Great Blondino (1967). In it, the picaresque and the mythic overlap, 
and irony, which is prevalent in many aspects of the film, ceases to play 
a structural role. In the previous chapters we have seen the applicability 
of Harold Bloom's analysis of Romantic mythopoeia to several major films 
of the American avant-garde, whose "myth, quite simply, is myth: the 
process of its making, and the inevitability of its defeat." Here the same 
pattern can be seen with somewhat diminished intensity. Blondino, the 
central character, a tightrope walker, wanders through the San Francisco 
townscape pursued by a detective from "the committee." In his gray clown 
suit, the alienated and naive protagonist is the immediate heir of the flower 
thief and of MacLaine's figures, and more distantly but even more closely 
a reincarnation of the caged artist in pursuit of his eye in Peterson's The 
Cage. This connection, of which Nelson and his collaborator, the painter 
William Wiley, were unaware, is never so apparent as when Blondino 
pushes his ever-present wheelbarrow through crowded streets wearing a 

One debt to earlier films has been acknowledged by Nelson repeatedly: 
since his second film, Confessions of a Black Mother Succuba (1965), he 
has recognized his debt to Bruce Conner. From the very opening of The 
Great Blondino, his sixth film, the synthesis of Conner and Rice is evident. 
A white knight from a television commercial is transformed by a magical 
wand, also from a commercial, into the protagonist of the film, "a misfit, 
out of step," in the ironical language of one of the film's minor characters. 

Until its last minutes the film has no narrative order. Scenes, which 
are too brief and dispersed to be called episodes, change and recur in 
rhythmic waves according to the logic of dream association. Several ex- 
plicit scenes of the hero sleeping and even more references to dreams in 
the form of sawing wood or a line of "z's" flashing across the image can 
be meant either to frame a central portion of the dream or to implicate 
the entire film in a dream vision. At times, Blondino lapses into the pas- 
sivity of a somnambulist from the trance film tradition. Then he mediates, 
as the dreamer, the disorienting encounter with collaged newsreels that the 
film-maker, again developing upon Conner's work, has built into the film. 

Nelson suppresses the ironic presence of the quotations from newsreels 
and old films by meticulously integrating them into the spatial logic of his 
photographed scenes. Unlike Conner's collages, these images are not al- 
lowed to burst into the viewer's consciousness as affirmations of the ma- 
teriality of the film as film. They are part of a strategy of careful disori- 
entation which includes radical changes of scale. For instance, by 
superimposition Blondino appears to dance in a frying pan, and later in 
one of the most memorable images in the film he climbs on a gigantic chair 


Conflict of scale in Robert Nelson's The Great Blondino. 

several times taller than a man, actually built for this effect, to watch a 
rhinoceros pacing in the distance. The effect of this latter disorientation is 
all the greater because the placement of the chair in the foreground of the 
shot makes it look optically rather than actually enlarged for a few seconds 
before Blondino enters the frame to provide a measure of camparison. 

At the very end of the film there is a narrative attended by an ironical 
undercurrent reflexively attesting to the cinematic illusion. First the detec- 
tive makes a statement of his function in the film: "When the committee 
heard about this fellow, we were quite sure that his operations were not 
in the national interest." Up to that point, his role had only been suggested 
by his costume, mimicry, and a musical motif underlining his periodic 
appearances. Following the detective's speech, Blondino attempts his fatal 
rope-walking. This is the climax of the film, but Nelson distances from it 
by cutting from the actor to his image on the tightrope, first projected on 
the screen of a movie theater, then on television. When he falls, subjective 
drama and the affirmation of material fuse: his descent is indicated by a 
fast montage of flashes, flares, and numbers from academy leader. Then, 
by metaphorical extension, his disaster is prolonged in a quotation from 
a science fiction film in which a giant octopus captures a man. 

In the final ambiguous moment of the film, Blondino walks again on 
solid ground, pushing the wheelbarrow, in an image of prismatic distor- 
tion. This resurrection, like the quoted images preceding it, is nostalgic. In 
a note for the Experimental Film Competition of Knokke-le-Zoute at the 
end of 1967, the film-makers offered the following statement: 


Robert Nelson's Bleu Shut: the name of a boat, the clock, 
over a loop-printed image of a barking dog. 

This is a long film that uses no specific narrative development. 
Its coherence depends upon deeper non-verbal sensibilities. The 
great Blondino is a figurative allusion to the tightrope walker 
Blondin, who gained international fame in the 19th Century by 
walking many times across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The 
film speaks about the level of risk at which we live and of the 
foolishness and beauty of our lives at the edge, where we con- 
front that risk. 5 

Rather than speak of risk, the film longs for one. Its version of the 
process and defeat of mythopoeia is bound up with a temporal predica- 
ment of which the film-maker hardly seems aware. In this very controlled 
and well-integrated film, what is out of control and cannot be integrated 
is its elegiac mood, which ultimately undermines its mythopoeia. 

Nelson's most sustained achievement so far, Bleu Shut (1970), found 
for itself a new form which could contain and derive energy from the 
contradictory tendencies of his fourteen earlier films. Bleu Shut is a prime 
example of the participatory film, a form which emerged at the end of the 
1960s out of extensions of the structural film. If we survey these forms 
diachronically, it would seem that the great unacknowledged aspiration of 
the American avant-garde cinema has been the mimesis of the human mind 
in a cinematic structure. Beginning with an attempt to translate dreams 
and other revelations of the personal unconscious in trance film, through 
the imitation of the act of seeing in the lyric film and the collective un- 
conscious in the mythopoeic film, this cinema attempted to define con- 


sciousness and the imagination. Its latest formal constructions have ap- 
proached the form of meditation — the structural film — in order to evoke 
more directly states of consciousness and reflexes of the imagination in the 
viewer. The participatory films follow the direction established by the 
structural cinema in finding corollaries for the conscious mind. 

In Bleu Shut Nelson proposed film-viewing as a testing experience. At 
the same time George Landow was making Institutional Quality from the 
same premise, while Hollis Frampton was presenting montage as a logical 
function and cinematic construction in general as a system of thought in 
his film Zorns Lemma. Each of these film-makers came to this point of 
formal evolution following clues in their own earlier works rather than 
from mutual interaction or from a common source of inspiration. For both 
Landow and Frampton that immediate past entailed an intense involve- 
ment with the structural film. Nelson's one structural film, The Awful 
Backlash (1967), a single shot for fourteen minutes of a hand untangling 
the snarled line of a fishing reel, does not represent a crucial moment in 
his evolution. For him the fixed camera was one of many contingent strat- 
egies explored in several short films made at the same time as The Great 
Blondino, which later would inform the synthesis of Bleu Shut. 

In The Great Blondino the film-maker attempted to unite footage he 
collected from various sources with his own photography through a mythic 
narrative that could bridge both. In Bleu Shut he invented a form which 
would be capable of holding together many different kinds of film while 
maintaining their integrity as home movies, advertisements, quotations, 
etc. In Nelson's inflection of the participatory form, the very question of 
synthesizing the materials of the film is handed directly to the viewer. In 
the ironic structure he provides, all images share a relationship to one- 
minute subsections of the film. Screen time is affirmed in two ways. A 
small transparent clock appears in the upper right-hand corner of the 
screen, measuring the minutes and seconds throughout the film. That mea- 
surement is reinforced by a number which flashes briefly on the screen at 
the beginning of each new minute. 

The film is ironically subtitled "(30 minutes)" and at the beginning a 
woman's voice tells us, "This film will be exactly thirty minutes long." But 
it is not. At the end of the half hour the cards indicating the minutes no 
longer appear, but the film continues for another four or five minutes, 
according to its own clock, as its maker, in negative, tests the sound system 
in preparation for a speech about the nature of cinema, which we never 
hear. The failure of the film to terminate at the exact instant predicted 
surprises us because all of the other promises heard at the beginning were 
precisely fulfilled. The woman's speech describes the future of the film: 

I'm now off-stage where Bob and Bill can't hear me. This is how 
its gonna be: This film is exactly thirty minutes long. The little 
clock in the upper right and corner tells the exact amount of 


time that has elapsed from the beginning and the amount of 
time left. . . . 

At 5 minutes, 3 5 seconds comes the Johnny Mars Band. 

At 11:15, weiners. 

At 21:05, pornography. 

At 23:30, a duet. 

Watch the clock. 

What she does not tell us is that most of the film's time will be occupied 
by a guessing game. For an entire minute a color photograph of a boat 
will appear on the screen with six possible names printed over it. The first 
time the choices are: Bodo, Moki-Moki, Heaven Sabuv, Vegas Vamp, Big 
Boy, and Sea Dancer. Offscreen, we hear two men, Bob and Bill (the film- 
maker and William Wiley), deliberating on which name they will pick. At 
the end of the minute they each make a choice; then the woman tells them 
the answer. This game is repeated eleven times at intervals of one minute. 
More often than not, both men guess wrong. Naturally the viewer of the 
film is drawn into the guessing game because of its duration, repetition, 
and the possibility of measuring his luck against that of the two guessers 
within the film. 

In the minute-long intervals between the pictures of the boats, or in 
parts of those minutes, various collected and photographed images appear 
which invoke different problems in the perception of film. The naked film- 
maker, crawling through a cubicle of mirrors, creates a confusion of the 
actual with the reflected body. The image of a steaming hot-dog proclaims 
itself as a loop only when the viewer begins to perceive the repetitious 
pattern of a barely perceptible puff of steam, and then without any indi- 
cation of a transition, the looping ends, and a fork severs the hot dog. A 
more obvious loop of a dog barking takes on an ambiguous dimension by 
the irregular alternation between silence and synchronized sound. The ap- 
pearance of the frame line and surface dirt points out the filmic objectivity 
of an old pornographic film incorporated within Bleu Shut. Another al- 
lusion to the conventions of cinema is a Hawaiian number out of an old 

Each of these inserts, which are for the most part found objects, func- 
tions independently. There is no interweaving of imagery nor narrative 
continuity. Each elongates and divides the parts of the guessing game like 
advertising interrupting a television quiz show, but, unlike advertisements, 
they do not have a distinctly negative relation to the game. They are of 
equal importance, simply its reverse face. In fact, some of the intentional 
energy of the game carries over to the inserts, as if the audience were being 
called on to solve perceptual puzzles, to interpret them, and above all to 
construct a unity out of their diversity. Bleu Shut reverses the thrust of 
The Great Blondino. By fracturing the possible unities between found ob- 
jects and filmed scenes and suggesting a field of cinematic perception with- 


out a center — or at best with a problematic center — it demythologizes its 
own ironies and at the very end almost throws the film-maker outside his 
own film (he does not fit within its "30 minutes"). The Great Blondino, 
on the other hand, had a mythic center where the ironies of the materials 
could mesh with the ironies of the narrative. 

The movement between works which establish a tentative center and 
those which disperse or put into question their centers, observed in these 
two films by Nelson, characterizes all of the films I have grouped in this 
chapter. At times the desire for a central organization has been satisfied 
by a loose, picaresque development substituting for a mythic core, and just 
as often (but not in the case of Bleu Shut) the dispersed structure has been 
a metaphor for the apocalyptic intention of the film. Different dynamics 
and dimensions of irony in the films of MacLaine, Conner, Rice, and Nel- 
son have intensified the formal alternations within individual films and 
within whole filmographies. These film-makers have been grouped here 
not to suggest that they form a school or exhibit a regional sensibility. Far 
from it. Bruce Conner and Ron Rice were very independent figures who 
began working in film in the late 1950s when the avant-garde cinema was 
at its least cohesive. They simply share in their works certain patterns of 
responding to the void. MacLaine was another isolated artist who came 
at the very end of a strong movement, whose major film pointed chaoti- 
cally toward the forms of the later 1950s. Nelson's work, on the other 
hand, marks the end of that period. In his hand the picaresque and the 
centerless film becomes a deliberate strategy for making works which re- 
spond to the new cohesion of the national avant-garde cinema of the 
1960s. An enclosed picture of the historical moment we have been consid- 
ering calls for a discussion of the films of Larry Jordan, even though the 
ironic factor, a common denominator of those I have been discussing, 
plays a minimal role in both his films of photographed actuality and his 
animated collages. His materials, subjects, and forms coincide and envision 
a continuous world where strong or fragile moods are never ruptured. Yet 
despite these thematic differences, Jordan's isolation and his artistic re- 
sponses to the situation of the 1950s draw him into consideration with 
the men I have been discussing. 

Larry Jordan's formative period as a film-maker extends throughout 
the 1950s. He began to make films at approximately the same time as Stan 
Brakhage, with whom he went to high school in Denver. Jordan appears 
in Brakhage's Destistfilm (1953) and Brakhage in his Trumpit (1956), both 
psycho-dramas. Brakhage's approach to film-making and the energy with 
which he pursued it was unique in the 1950s. He moved between Colo- 
rado, New York, and San Francisco, often in pursuit of the vanished cen- 
ters of late-i940S film-making. He continued making and extending the 
form of the trance film until he forged the lyric cinema described in chapter 
6. He not only avoided the kind of crisis most of his colleagues faced at 
that, time, but he even managed to keep up a frail connection between the 


dispersed and sometimes retired film-makers he sought out in his cross- 
continental movements. 

Jordan failed where Brakhage succeeded in finding a convincing form 
within the trance film. He matured as an artist and found his authentic 
voice in film by gradually withdrawing from the role of the film-maker 
that the previous generation of avant-gardists had established as a norm. 
As he lost interest in reconstituting the community of film-makers and in 
the politics of distribution and promotion toward the late 1950s, the dis- 
tinction between a finished film and a work-in-progress seems to have 
dissolved for him. In its place came a gradual involvement with the pos- 
sibility of cinema to testify to the processes of its own making and with 
films designed to celebrate a particular occasion. When he tentatively re- 
emerged as a publicly exhibiting film-maker at the apogee of the revived 
interest in the avant-garde film around 1963, he had produced a substan- 
tial body of work, radically different from his early psycho-dramas, to 
which it is difficult to assign dates. 

In those few years Jordan had become one of the few film-makers to 
develop confidence in the artistic validity of a less formal, more sponta- 
neous cinema. Elsewhere in America, in similar isolation, a few other film- 
makers had come to the same position, as we shall see in the next chapter. 
Later, when Jordan briefly released the films he had been making without 
thought of public exhibition, he put them in groups, usually combining 
animations with actualities: for example, 3 Moving Fresco Films contained 
Enid's Idyll and Portrait of Sharon, both animations, and Hymn in Praise 
of the Sun, a series of "cine-portraits." Among his films are animated 
collages, pixilated actualities, portraits, superimposition films, and a hand- 
painted film. Some were edited within the camera. He described an aspect 
of his working process in Film Culture: 

[Making Pink Swine] I got very carried away with object anima- 
tion and combining layout animation and object animation. I 
was moving objects at all different rates; I was setting the cam- 
era; I wasn't hand-holding it; I was using it just like a musical 
instrument, like playing a saxophone, pushing the button on the 
camera and moving the objects in rhythm. All those films [in Pe- 
tite Suite] were improvised; they're virtually as they came out of 
the camera. ... I didn't want everything to move at one particu- 
lar rhythm; it all depended on what the subject material was. 
But I wasn't planning it. I was just letting my mind go and see 
what could be done in 100 ft. [i.e., about three minutes of film], 
I liked the 100 foot form. The film was done before you had 
time to change cameras; I don't remember whether it was one 
sitting or not, but it wouldn't have been more than two days. 
You can't do a dance, one dance, in two different days, and 
these films are essentially dances, you know. 6 


The oscillation between predetermined and spontaneous films set in 
motion a spiralling intensity in the investigation of the oneiric and meta- 
physical dimensions of Jordan's cinema. Curiously unlike MacLaine, Con- 
ner, Rice, and Nelson, that intensity paralleled a growing frailty, so that 
the extraordinary series of works which represent the first climax of Jor- 
dan's career, Duo Concertantes (1962-1964), Hamfat Asar (1965), The 
Old House, Passing (1966), Gymnopedies (1968), and Our Lady of the 
Sphere (1969) — all animations of Victorian engravings except The Old 
House Passing — occupies an exquisite space and time where reverie and 
dream meet, delicately poised between nostalgia and terror. 

Duo Concertantes has two parts, The Centennial Exposition and Pa- 
tricia Gives Birth to a Dream by the Doorway. Both Patricia and Hamfat 
Asar, the two most spectacular of his animations, operate against the back- 
drop of a fixed scene. In the former, it is a back view of a young lady 
framed in a doorway looking out upon woods and a lake; in the latter, 
Jordan uses an engraving of a seacoast with cliffs. Time and a change of 
culture have given a surrealistic and nostalgic aura to Victorian woodcuts, 
as Max Ernst and several collagists between him and Jordan have known 
for five decades. Where Ernst slammed together radically incongruent im- 
ages from such found material and thereby released the terrors of mon- 
strosities and the sensual depth of inconceivable landscapes, Jordan has 
chosen to refine their delicacy and to push his images almost to the point 
of evanescence — a limit represented in several collages by the reductive 
metaphor of a film within a collage-film flickering with pure imageless 

The background picture of Patricia returns us to the moment when 
the American avant-garde film found its first image of interiority, that is, 
to the image of Maya Deren pressing her hands against the window in 
Meshes of the Afternoon to gaze inwardly upon a double of herself chasing 
the mirror-faced figure. The doorway in which Patricia stands is both the 
port of exchange and the barrier between the inner and outer worlds, as 
Maya Deren's window and before her Mallarme's "Fenetre" had been. 
Outside, tiny images descend from the top of the screen. First an elephant 
comes down and slowly sinks out of the bottom, but in his downward 
course he deposits an object which hovers on the horizon of the lake. The 
discontinuous power of that horizon line to hold objects from falling down 
the flat screen provides the film with a frail but finely conceived tension 
between two illusionary gravities, that of the actual theater in which we 
see the film where objects must fall from the top of the screen through the 
bottom, as if to land on the floor under our feet, and the represented 
gravity line, the horizon, within the engraving. The manifestation of ob- 
jects and their movements within the film enumerate the variations possible 
between these two centers of gravity. 

In the incessant materialization and disappearance offscreen or sud- 
denly vanishing by moving of objects and creatures, the usual way of de- 
feating the gravitational forces is by growing wings and flying offscreen, 


at the edges. The inside/outside distinction and its evaporation generates 
the central apperceptive metaphor of the film. A picture stand appears on 
the horizon. On its white screen a black-and-white flicker occurs; slides 
appear in sequence; then a bird flaps its wings in an evocation of the 
origins of cinema. It flies off the screen and into the illusory landscape 
surrounding it. In the final extensions of this trope, a swarm of bees ap- 
pears on the little screen; some disappear as soon as they overreach its 
frame, but others escape into the landscape. These bees come inward, past 
the unmoving woman, and are lost within the house. To commemorate 
this triumph of the imagination, a star falls splashing into the lake, an egg 
takes wing, and Larry Jordan's most delicate film ends. 

In Hamfat Asar (whose title joins a made-up word from Jordan's 
household, "Hamfat," with an archaic name of Osiris, the Egyptian un- 
derworld god) the film-maker generates tensions similar to that of the dis- 
continuous horizon in the earlier film by stretching a tightrope across his 
seascape. A figure on stilts crosses it repeatedly while creatures and objects 
float by in the background, manifest themselves, and obscure the fore- 
ground or cross and perch upon the tightrope. In the course of his cross- 
ings, he will become a bird, a train, a floating balloon. 

Once, the entire picture bursts into actual flames. Later a star ex- 
plodes, first whitening, then blackening out the whole image. When the 
landscape reappears, the tightrope is gone, but the man on stilts starts to 
cross, successfully, as if it were there. He does not complete the passage 
until, at the end of the film, a cloud floats by on which he can stand. 

The Centennial Exposition, Gymnopedies, and Our Lady of the 
Sphere use with increasing complexity numerous backdrops which are con- 
nected by the continuous movement of a foreground figure from one to 
the next, although that figure tends to be undergoing its own continual 
metamorphosis. In Gymnopedies he tinted the entire film a pastel blue, 
and in Our Lady of the Sphere several solid screen colors and occasionally 
split-screen two-color moments have a structural function in the complex 
animation. He alternates zooming motions, accenting first movements on 
the left side of the image, then on the right, and he uses Cubist superim- 
positions of a single figure out of phase with itself to represent new per- 
spectives of space and depth in animation. He also uses montage to parallel 
interior scenes with those taking place on a moonscape. At its most com- 
plex, in a scene of circus acrobats turning into flashing stars, he employs 
hand-held backdrops and three different colors in superimposition with 
counterpointed movements on the different levels. In the middle of the film 
he shows a horse staring at an easel which becomes a film within a film, 
flickering and breaking the limits of its frame as had happened in Patricia. 
The elaborate techniques of Our Lady of the Sphere permit Jordan to 
break through the conventions of continuity he had created and then thor- 
oughly explored in his earlier collage films. Yet he had to sacrifice the 
crucial tension of the slow and delicately elaborated imagery to gain the 
complex dynamics of the later film. 

The flickering film-within-a-film: Larry Jordan's Patricia Gives Birth to a Dream 
by the Doorway. 


In The Old House, Passing, he resurrected a setting from the trance 
film, the mysterious house, to construct a radically elliptical narrative that 
attains a height of fragility comparable to the best of his animated films. 
According to the film-maker: 

It is a ghost-film wherein the central mood revolves around a 
plot, rather than moving straight along a plot line. Mood pre- 
dominates over plot, but plot is always there before the eye, as 
well as behind and to the side of it. Within the meshes of the 
fabric an older woman has lost a man (husband?) and a child 
thru a mysterious accident or disappearance. Elements (a young 
man, woman and child) are drawn into her which release her 
from the past and the dark mysteries of the huge old house and 
the night-walking spirit of the departed soul. 7 

In this film Jordan translated the strategies of his animated films into 
events in actual space and time. By using prolepsis, repetition, and shifting 
perspective he keeps the relatively simple narrative in an elusive state of 
development throughout the film, as if he were extending the conventional 
opening of a mystery film into a total structure. The full disclosure of the 
narrative is suspended, hinted at, but never achieved. The situations of the 
film — a couple and their child spending a night in an old house and sub- 
sequently exploring it; the old woman who lives there watching them; the 
ghost of her dead husband watching her and them — give rise to an am- 
bivalence in which the distinction between observation and fantasy breaks 
down, and past and present interpenetrate. The reveries of Patricia Gives 
Birth to a Dream by the Doorway have their narrative equivalents in the 
slow, formally composed, chiaroscuro images of shifting and overlapping 
explorations, discoveries, and encounters. 

Rather than reach a climax, the film simply shifts to a scene of exor- 
cism. The family visits a cemetery, where we assume the ghost is buried, 
and in an act of deflating the mood of mystery, they blow soap bubbles 
through the graveyard and leave. But even that release is framed by the 
perspective of the ghost who watches their departure. 

The Old House, Passing makes the temporality which is at the heart 
of all the films discussed in this chapter thematic. These film-makers of the 
fifties and sixties were perhaps the first to explore the fundamental dis- 
parity between the nostalgia of the photographic image and the "nowness" 
of projected film. Once this chasm began to open for them, they created 
an apocalyptic and a picaresque form that commented ironically on that 
temporality. It also sought to bridge that chasm with an ontology of terror 
(MacLaine's desperate men, Conner's disasters, the flower thief's paranoia, 
Blondino's tightrope walk, and the haunting of The Old House, Passing) 
which reaches its most diminished point in the experience of harmless risk 
(the games of Bleu Shut). Risk and terror (and in Jordan's case the thres- 


hold between terror and wonder) provide the healing moment in which 
cinematic time and the time of its perception would coincide. 

In New York during the same years other film-makers were en- 
countering the same temporal paradox, which they took as their theme in 
different personal ways, creating myths of recovered innocence and its 

ecovered Innocence 

When ken jacobs 1 
edited Blonde Cobra in 1963 out of foot- 
age his friend Bob Fleischner had aban- 
doned and tapes Jack Smith had made, he 
had not seen, nor even heard of, Christo- 
pher MacLaine's The End, made exactly 
ten years earlier. Yet the two films are re- 
markably similar. They are both exagger- 
ated expressions of suicidal despair whose 
formal structure metaphorically reflects 
their themes of self-destruction and disin- 
tegration. Although MacLaine combines 
the stories of several lonely people in his 
film and Jacobs presents only one — that of 
Jack Smith, himself a film-maker — two 
structural similarities outweigh this differ- 
ence. Long passages of spoken narration 
while the screen is black appear periodi- 
cally, and black-and-white is regularly in- 
terwoven with color imagery. In both films 
these devices are used aggressively to rup- 
ture continuity and challenge the con- 
sciousness of the viewer. Even the distinc- 
tion between the multiple perspective of 
The End and the single character of 
Blonde Cobra begins to break down. In 
the latter film Jack Smith assumes different 

3 i6 


roles (the lonely little boy, Madame Nescience, Sister Dexterity) and tells 
their stories, while in the earlier film the stories merge in the final montage. 

Although the relationship between these two films is not genetic, they 
bracket an era of the American avant-garde contemporary with the Beat 
sensibility. They also bracket the country. Just as The End depends upon 
the cityscape of San Francisco, Blonde Cobra, even though it is shot almost 
entirely indoors, makes the presence of New York felt. Early in the film, 
as Smith nibbles on a clump of tile and cement in a sordid room, we hear 
a radio broadcast: "Twelve noon by the century-old chimes in historic City 
Hall. This is New York, the city of opportunity, where eight million people 
live in peace and harmony and enjoy the benefits of democracy." Near the 
end, Smith quotes himself: " 'Why shave? . . . when I can't even think of 
a reason for living?' Jack Smith. 1958. Sixth Street." 

Jacobs insists upon the idea of a film as a dying organism throughout 
his works. Blonde Cobra breaks down before it can get started. After the 
first few tentative images, we hear Ginger Rogers sing one line, "Let's call 
the whole thing off," followed by a mess of scribbles on leader and a 
halting of the soundtrack. After two blasts of live radios in the theater and 
a change to color imagery and back to black-and-white, the character on 
screen says, "We will now start all over again." We see him writing out 
the film's titles. 

The two false starts and the shock of the radios are the first challenges 
to the concentration of the viewer. The presence of the radios is incor- 
porated within the film when the announcement, "Twelve noon," booms 
out on the soundtrack and again later when a single live radio plays, syn- 
chronized with a scene of Smith in baby clothes playing peek-a-boo and 
apparently listening to a radio. When the actor on screen smashes his 
radio's tubes with a hammer, the sound in the audience stops abruptly. It 
is only at this late point that the audience receives a sign that the inter- 
action of picture and live radio is not arbitrary. 

Even more unsettling is the duration of the black passages. At the 
beginning of the first story — the lonely little boy who waits all day for his 
mother to bring him candy ("She would give him some, but not much, 
just a little because she would save most of it for herself") — there are 
flashes of Smith miming the tale, promising the viewer a visualization 
which never materializes. That same promise is renewed when, after sev- 
eral long minutes, that story ends and we see Smith in drag as Madame 
Nescience. But he is on the screen less than a minute before blackness 
descends again, and the whole of her dream is told without illustration. 
By this time Jacobs has engendered a strong frustration of visual expec- 
tations. Another even briefer image appears, only to be followed by a 
repetitive, contradictory song ("God is not dead, he is just marvelously 
sick . . . God is dead . . .") through another long blackness. After these 
three central voids, Jacobs no longer uses this tactic, but the viewer who 
sees the film for the first time watches to the end under the threat of them. 
In fact, Jacobs momentarily teases us with the possibility of more. The 


screen briefly blackens and Smith quotes, " 'Life swarms with innocent 
monsters.' Charles Baudelaire." But this time the image returns immedi- 

The narratives themselves are networks of ironies. The film-maker uses 
repetition to intensify the duration of the black passages. After a long 
description of the lonely little boy's day, Smith makes us fear an endless 
prolongation of the story by saying, "Next day, same thing all over again. 
Mother . . . Mother . . . Mother." But rather than retell the empty events 
he introduces a new trope by changing from the third to the first person 
and closes the ironic distance between his story and himself: 

Then, and there was a little boy that lived upstairs . . . and one 
day the little boy found the other little boy that lived upstairs, 
the family who lived upstairs, in the upstairs floor, and the little 
boy who was less than seven, the lonely little boy, the lonely lit- 
tle boy was less than seven, I know that because we didn't leave 
Columbus until I was seven, I know it, I was under seven and I 
took a match and I lit it and I pulled out the other little boy's 
penis and I burnt his penis with a match! 

At the moment of transition to the first person, the narrative tone changes 
to a rapid, hysterical confession which mounts in intensity until the last 
word, which ends both the story and the blackness. 

A comparable shift of narrative levels occurs in the subsequent story. 
First he establishes the character of Madame Nescience, then he describes 
her sadistic dream in which she becomes a Mother Superior. He repeatedly 
confuses the roles while relating the dream. At one point, while imitating 
the voice of Sister Dexterity, he addresses the Mother Superior as if she 
were the dreamer: "Madame Nescience — I mean, Mother Superior!" and 
excuses his lapse by saying "you see this is a dream." But after that he 
continues to call the nun by the dreamer's name without correcting himself. 

The space through which the characters move is cluttered and 
cramped. The camera hovers close to them, often shifting slightly to follow 
their movements. Even when they dance to the Astaire and Rogers' duet, 
"Let's call the whole thing off," the camera cannot get a shot of their 
whole bodies. It must pan down to their feet. Generally the footage looks 
like what it is, fragments of two abandoned films, with little concern for 
composition within the frame or spatial elaboration. Yet within the ironic 
structure Jacobs made for this material, its fragmentation and lack of com- 
position become positive qualities. 

In the fifth catalogue of the Film-Makers Cooperative, Jacobs describes 
the genesis and the theme of the film: 

Jack [Smith] says I made the film too heavy. It was his and 
Bob's [Fleischner] intention to create light monster-movie com- 
edy. Two comedies, actually two separate stories that were being 

3 i8 


shot simultaneously until they had a falling out over who should 
pay for the raw stock destroyed by a fire when Jack's cat 
knocked over a candle. Jack claimed it was an act of God. In 
the winter of '59 blue Bob showed me the footage. Having no 
idea of the original story plans I was able to view the material 
not as exquisite fragments of a failure, of two failures, but as 
the makings of a new entirety. Bob gave over the footage to me 
and with it the freedom to develop it as I saw fit. 

Silly, self-pitying, guilt-strictured and yet triumphing — on one 
level — over the situation with style, because he's unapologeti- 
cally gifted, has a genius for courage, knows that a state of in- 
dignity can serve to show his character in sharpest relief. He 
carries on, states his presence for what it is. Does all he can to 
draw out our condemnation, testing our love of limits, enticing 
us into an absurd moral posture the better to dismiss us with a 
regal "screw off." 2 

What is the precise nature of the triumph of which Jacobs speaks? 
Surely it is not the qualified optimistic moment of the apocalyptic and 
picaresque films discussed in the previous chapter: the moment of forget- 
ting doom just before the end of The End, the final mystery of A Movie, 
the scattered ecstasies of The Flower Thief, Blondino's resurrection, or the 
exorcism that concludes The Old House, Passing. There is a moment in 
Blonde Cobra when Jerry Sims collapses in a dance and Smith continues 
the number by himself that hints at release. In the scene immediately fol- 
lowing, the penultimate of the film, there is the structural possibility of 
such a vision, but it is deliberately made ironic. Smith in baby clothes plays 
peek-a-boo with the camera to the accompaniment of a live radio in the 
audience. The potential energy for making this scene a triumph — a willful 
deepening of Smith's infantilism — begins when he smashes the radio on 
screen, at which point the radio in the audience stops, as already noted. 
Baby music from a child's record comes on. He seems to have defied the 
radio's interruption of his fantasy. But then he undermines this moment 
by smoking a cigarette and burning holes with its tip in the piece of gauze 
between the camera and himself. This act, which had occurred before in 
the film, characterizes the scene as another sordid episode in this mock 
quest for sexual identity. 

Jacobs hated the trance film when he began to make cinema. At the 
time, he has said, it seemed "precious" and "narcissistic" to him. Although 
he eschewed its form and conventions, he borrowed its central theme in 
Blonde Cobra. The individual scenes and stories provide an ironic series 
of sexual options. Transvestism also pervades the film; most of the time 
he is on the screen, Smith wears drag. The one sustained episode in color 
has a masochistic climax: Sims, imitating a thirties gangster, enters the 
room where Smith and another man are puffing smoke at each other and 


burning a necktie with their cigarettes. Sims stabs one man to death and 
then attacks Smith with his knife. He cringes and grimaces in fear. Then 
he mumbles, "Sex is a pain in the ass," and the camera pans up Smith's 
body to show the knife inserted in his buttocks. 

The last station of this sexual odyssey is the very infantilism which 
had inflected the manner in which all the other sexual options were por- 
trayed. But within Blonde Cobra this is not a resolution of the sexual 
problematic. In the final scene, Smith chants in desperation, "A mother's 
wisdom had dragged me down to this! a crummy loft! a life of futility! 
hunger! despair!" He puts a toy gun to his head. The image of a graveyard, 
first seen when the radio announcer described New York in the first part 
of the film, appears. Then Smith collapses to the floor revealing Sims be- 
hind him holding a card reading fin. As the film runs out, we hear Smith 
crying "What went wrong? What went wrong? What went wrong?" re- 
ferring both to the failed suicide and the end of the film. 

The triumph to which Jacobs alludes is not within the film. It is the 
triumph of the ironical mode which brackets dreams within stories, con- 
fuses a character with the actor portraying it, and reveals a sexual despair 
while mocking sexual despairs. The folding over of guises and revelations 
deprives the film of a fixed point of reference, the solid presence of content, 
and makes it into a film object, which fitfully starts and after almost ex- 
piring several times, dies with an unanswered question, "What went 

The style and the form of Blonde Cobra were developed over a num- 
ber of years. Throughout the late 1950s Jacobs had been shooting and 
editing a vastly ambitious film, Star Spangled to Death, which runs ap- 
proximately three hours. In conceiving and making the film Jacobs devel- 
oped his aesthetic of failure. In an unpublished interview, Jacobs described 
his ambitions for this film and its structure: 

I had a terrific bent toward a barren dynamic perfection. I was 
leaning in every possible way toward a work like Mondrian 
would make. At the same time, these perfect structures, I knew, 
were not right. I felt that their destruction revealed more of a 
truth than their standing perfection. [For Star Spangled to Death 
I was] days ahead of time setting up very involved sets and situ- 
ations for Jack and Jerry to wander into, situations which they 
could break up. 

I would just move toward some ordered situation and then 
introduce Jack or Jerry to break up its pattern or to create some 
new possibilities of patterns that my mind would not have come 
up with. I felt the chaos of those two individuals and my pen- 
chant for a pattern clarified each other; the patterns became 
clearer because of the chaos, in the midst of the chaos; these 
two bodies of chaos became clearer because of the pattern. 



I was very interested in combustion. There was even a long 
destruction sequence in which thing after thing was broken . . . 
Just watching things break, and in their breaking reveal their 
structure, had the most vibrant moment of life, all the clarity of 
their being made, like explicitly for their moment of destruction. 
I was interested in revealing things in their breaking and I 
wanted Star Spangled to Death to be a film that was constantly 
breaking. 3 

In talking about his film Jacobs is careful to distinguish between the 
"collapse of order" he wanted to achieve and "pure disorder." The rela- 
tionship between order and its collapse recalls Stan Brakhage's use of 
chance operations within a controlled editing situation. Jacobs seems to 
have translated this interplay to the shooting stage by allowing the unpre- 
dictable character of his two chief actors to transform the structure of his 
fixed and very intricate compositions. Both formulations of this aesthetic 
have their roots in Abstract Expressionism. Jacobs 's comes directly from 
it without the mediation of contemporary American poetics; he studied 
painting with Hans Hofmann at the Art Students League and in Provin- 
cetown in the late 1950s before devoting his energies completely to cinema. 
In the same interview, he compares the sudden shifts of meaning he wanted 
to have in Star Spangled to Death to Abstract Expressionist painting: 

All your preconceptions of Jack or Jerry could be just turned 
around any moment. You'd have to rethink who they were 
again. I was interested in painting that could constantly make 
you reconceive the entire work. You'd think it was this kind of 
painting, or this kind of spatial development; and then you hit a 
point in the painting when you realize that this thing was not 
behind that. 4 

In a much later structural film, Soft Rain (1968), Jacobs would bring 
this painterly adventure of perception to cinema. In his notes for the fifth 
Film-Makers' Cooperative catalogue he is the film's best analyst: 

Three identical prints of a single 100 ft. fixed-camera take are 
shown from beginning to end-roll light-flare, with a few feet of 
blackness preceding/bridging/following the rolls. View from 
above is of a partially snow-covered low flat rooftop receding 
between the brick walls of two much taller downtown N.Y. loft 
buildings. A slightly tilted rectangular shape left of the center of 
the composition is the section of rain-wet Reade Street visible to 
us over the low rooftop. Distant trucks, cars persons carrying 
packages, umbrellas sluggishly pass across this little stagelike 
area. A fine rain-mist is confused, visually, with the color emul- 
sion grain. 



A large black rectangle following up and filling to space 
above the stage-area is seen as both an unlikely abyss extending 
in deep space behind the stage or more properly, as a two di- 
mensional plane suspended far forward of the entire snow/rain 
scene. Though it clearly if slightly overlaps the two receding loft 
building walls the mind, while knowing better, insists on pre- 
suming it to be overlapped by them. (At one point the black 
plane even trembles.) So this mental tugging takes place 
throughout. The contradiction of 2D reality versus 3D implica- 
tion is amusingly and mysteriously explicit. 5 

In this superbly detailed description of the phenomenological reading of 
his own film, Jacobs omits saying that the black rectangle registers as a 
shade between the camera and the view described as soon as it trembles. 
In turn this gives rise to the unresolved possibility that we may be looking 
through a window. He continues: 

Filmed at 24 f.p.s. but projected at 16 the street activity is per- 
ceptibly slowed down. It's become a somewhat heavy laboring. 
The loop repetition (the series hopefully will intrigue you to fur- 
ther run-throughs) automatically imparts a steadily growing 
rhythmic sense of the street-activities. Anticipation for familiar 
movement-complexes builds, and as all smaller complexities join 
up in our knowledge of the whole the purely accidental counter- 
passings of people and vehicles becomes satisfyingly cogent, 
seems rhythmically structured and of a piece. Becomes choreog- 
raphy. 6 

There he ends. Although the loops are identical, the image leaves us unsure 
of that until we can identify and match one of the movements. Once the 
looping is confirmed, we wonder how many times we will see it. Unnoted 
by the film-maker is the interesting relationship between the purely linear 
graphic grid of the composition (the wall of one building forming a perfect 
diagonal to the center of the screen, the black rectangle coming exactly 
halfway down from the top) and the eccentric juxtaposition of these ele- 
ments as volumes. Jacobs's formal description of Soft Rain is evidence of 
the "bent for barren dynamic perfection" he spoke of in relation to Star 
Spangled to Death. 

The making of Star Spangled to Death took most of Jacobs's artistic 
energies between 1957 and 1963. It is a work of such scope and ambition 
that despite its negativity and its aesthetic of failure it participates in the 
myth of the absolute film. He once described a screening of a Ron Rice 
film at the Film-Makers' Cinemateque at which a reel of film fell from a 
table near the projector and rolled across the balcony floor, through a 
partition in the rail, and down to the seats below without harming anyone. 
He would have liked to have such an ending for the projection of Star 



Spangled to Death. He is aware too that his long inability to complete the 
film was bound up with its aesthetic. 

In addition to Blonde Cobra, Jacobs completed Little Stabs at Hap- 
piness (1959-1963) as a by-product of, or "a true breather" from, his long 
film. Except for the addition of titles which identify the four sections of 
the film and the use of 78-rpm records and a short monologue on the 
soundtrack, the film is exactly as it came out of the camera, with no ed- 
iting. Both Smith and Sims appear in it. The first episode shows Smith and 
a woman sitting in a dry bathtub playing with dolls. At one point he tries 
to eat the crotch of a doll between puffs on a cigarette. The camera moves 
casually, often resting on a bare lightbulb or another static element in the 

Each part of the film (they are all in color) is a separate moment 
without narrative causality. Each is immediately present. But as if he were 
unable to bear the unqualified presence of his images, in the second section 
Jacobs himself intrudes on the soundtrack, apologizing for his monologue 
by saying that he wanted some sound other than music to relax the au- 
dience's restlessness at this point. He then launches, in the most casual 
manner, a full-scale attack on the presence of his film. First he undermines 
the temporal integrity of the visual episode; then he attempts to involve 
us in the lives of the people we see on the screen. He tells us what time it 
is, 12:28, the moment of his recording the soundtrack. He brings the clock 
nearer to the microphone so we can listen to it tick. He plays a few notes 
on an organ before telling us he wants to use it in a future film. He even 
inserts a lacuna in the soundtrack itself: "I've just played that back," he 
says, "and I like it. It's vague." Meanwhile, on the screen two women have 
been sitting on chairs on a roof. The camera pans slowly from the shoes 
of one to those of another. A series of leisurely, careful compositions shows 
them rocking before a brick wall. After the lacuna, Jacobs tells us that he 
no longer sees anyone in the film. He begins by describing how the two 
women have disappeared from his life and goes on to describe his broken 
relationships with Jerry Sims and Jack Smith. The nostalgia of this 
monologue transforms our perception of the songs in the later sections. 
As dated pieces, they now carry a sense of pastness which spreads over to 
the images as well. But unlike Blonde Cobra and Star Spangled to Death, 
the immediacy of the visual is much stronger than the verbal undermining. 

In the next section, "It Began to Drizzle," Jacobs presents fixed-frame 
compositions of Jerry Sims and a woman sitting outside in a light rain. A 
table and chairs have been set up on cobblestones. The shots shift in a 
geometrical elaboration of the space between the two unspeaking actors. 
Often one occupies the extreme foreground while the other sits in the 
distance. At the end of this sequence, there is a brief silent scene of Jacobs 
himself drawing chalk figures on a sidewalk among Chinese children. 

Jack Smith, as "the Spirit of Listlessness" dressed in a clown suit, plays 
and lounges on a roof. He sucks at colored balloons, flashes light into the 


camera with a mirror, and almost seems about to take flight to the song, 
"Happy Bird." 

Smith himself made his own first film, Scotch Tape (1962), during the 
shooting of Star Spangled to Death. That day Jacobs had assembled his 
cast in a destroyed building or a section of a junkyard. Rusted cables in 
great tangles and broken slabs of concrete were all about. Smith borrowed 
the camera and filmed a dance of people exuberantly hopping around and 
under the cables. The area of wreckage was so extensive that he could film 
his dancers either from a few feet away or from hundreds of feet above 
them. Only by the size of the human figure is the scale of the shot percep- 
tible. Occasionally panning but usually with a fixed frame, he mixed shots 
of nearness with extreme distances. In the longest shots he framed his 
group of actors in a corner of the cluttered image; then he positioned them 
under a covering slab of concrete so that in the brief duration of the shot 
the viewer must seek out the dancers in the visual field. In the closer shots 
he makes use of a green artificial flower under which they dance or which 
some of them hold in their teeth while jumping about. Once, the flower 
rests statically in focus while the blurred bodies vibrate in the background. 

Scotch Tape is only three minutes long, in color, and appears to have 
been constructed in the camera without much subsequent editing, if any. 
It takes its title from a triangular wedge of dirty Scotch tape along the 
right side of the image. Since Jacobs seldom had enough money to develop 
his rushes from Star Spangled to Death, he had shot several rolls of film 
before he realized that the tape had gotten caught in the camera. Rather 
than let this accident ruin his film, Smith capitalized upon it in his title. 
Fortunately its fixed position offers a formal counterbalance to the play 
of scales upon which the shot changes are based. 

Jonas Mekas hailed Blonde Cobra, Little Stabs at Happiness, and 
Scotch Tape as opening a vital new direction in the American cinema. On 
May 2, 1963, he wrote in his column "Movie Journal," in the Village 

Lately, several movies have appeared from the underground 
which, I think, are making a very important turn in the indepen- 
dent cinema. As Shadows and Pull My Daisy marked the end of 
the avant-garde experimental cinema tradition of the 40's and 
50's (the symbolist-surrealist cinema of intellectual meanings), 
now there are works appearing which are marking a turn in the 
so-called New American Cinema — a turn from the New York 
realist school (the cinema of "surface" meanings and social en- 
gagement) toward a cinema of disengagement and new freedom. 

The movies I have in mind are Ron Rice's The Queen of 
Sheba Meets the Atom Man; Jack Smith's The Flaming Crea- 
tures [sic]; Ken Jacobs' Little Stabs at Happiness; Bob Fleis- 
chner's [sic] Blonde Cobra — four works that make up the real 



revolution in cinema today. These movies are illuminating and 
opening up sensibilities and experiences never before recorded in 
the American arts; a content which Baudelaire, the Marquis de 
Sade, and Rimbaud gave to world literature a century ago and 
which Burroughs gave to American literature three years ago. It 
is a world of flowers of evil, of illuminations, of torn and tor- 
tured flesh; a poetry which is at once beautiful and terrible, 
good and evil, delicate and dirty. 

Blonde Cobra, undoubtedly, is the masterpiece of the Bau- 
delairean cinema, and it is a work hardly surpassable in perver- 
sity, in richness, in beauty, in sadness, in tragedy. I think it is 
one of the great works of personal cinema, so personal that it is 
ridiculous to talk about "author's" cinema. I know that the 
larger public will misinterpret and misunderstand these films. 7 

No artist within the American avant-garde film has equaled the influ- 
ence of Jonas Mekas as a polemicist. 8 That influence was at its height in 
1963 when he proclaimed the birth of the "Baudelairean cinema." He 
couched his evaluation in terms of a historical perspective quite different 
from that of this book. I would like to interrupt my discussion of Jacobs 
and Smith at this point to analyze and trace the history of Mekas's posi- 

In January 1955, Mekas published the first issue of his magazine, Film 
Culture. He had arrived in New York six years before as a displaced person 
along with his brother Adolfas. They both immediately began to learn the 
techniques of film-making, and Jonas continued to write poetry in his na- 
tive Lithuanian. In that first issue they included an article by Hans Richter, 
their teacher at the Film Institute of City College of New York. "The Film 
as an Original Art Form" affirmed an essentially avant-garde stance. Nev- 
ertheless, the editorial position of the magazine represented in that first 
issue by Edouard de Laurot's "Toward a Theory of Dynamic Realism" 
was severely critical of the American avant-garde cinema. In the third issue, 
Mekas published "The Experimental Film in America," an attack in the 
guise of a survey with subsections entitled "The Adolescent Character of 
the American Film Poem," "The Conspiracy of Homosexuality," "The 
Lack of Creative Inspiration: Technical Crudity and Thematic Narrow- 
ness." He concluded, "The image of the contemporary American film 
poem and cineplastics, as briefly presented here, is decidedly unencour- 
aging. ... To improve the quality of the American film poem, experiments 
should be directed not so much towards new techniques but toward deeper 
themes, toward a more penetrating treatment of the nature and drama of 
the man of our epoch." Significantly, he calls for more attention to these 
film-makers as a way encouraging their improvement. Stan Brakhage has 
described an emergency meeting of the film-makers called by Maya Deren 
and Willard Maas at the time of the publication of this article to discuss 
the possibility of a lawsuit. Nothing came of it. Two and a half years later 


(November 1957), Mekas turned over half the magazine to "The 'Exper- 
imental' Scene," in which film-makers themselves contributed articles. 
There were no more attacks. 

With its nineteenth issue in 1959, Film Culture established the Inde- 
pendent Film Award to mark "the entrance of a new generation of film- 
makers in America." In the editorial for that issue, Mekas proclaimed the 
death of Hollywood. While describing the avant-garde cinema of the 1950s 
as a "degeneration," he gave those film-makers credit for having "kept the 
spirit of free cinema alive in America." The first flowering of that spirit 
was, according to him, the recipient of the first Independent Film Award — 
John Cassavetes's Shadows. In the next three issues, spread over two years, 
awards were given to Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's Pull My Daisy and 
Richard Leacock's Primary. And, as the editorials became longer, more 
credit was given to avant-garde film-makers. Furthermore, since 1958 a 
feature article on a major avant-gardist by Parker Tyler had been part of 
every issue. 

In the editorials between 1959 and 1961, one can see the tremendous 
impression nouvelle vague in France had on Mekas's thinking. It seemed 
to him that there had been a fundamental revolution in film-making, which 
he optimistically saw spreading to England and Poland as well as America. 
At the same time he was discovering an indigenous realist cinema in the 
work of Jerome Hill, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel. With feature films 
in production by Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, and numerous lesser- 
known independent directors who have not subsequently developed, it 
looked to Mekas as if the economics of American film-making had shifted 
from lavish Hollywood productions to more modest 35mm and even 
16mm films. He interpreted this as the end of the "experimental" film of 
the 1940s and 1950s and the beginning of a more socially committed, 
more publicly oriented, independent cinema. Once he began thinking of 
the early avant-garde cinema as the forerunner of the movement of which 
he was the champion, he gradually began to see more in the films he had 
previously rejected. 

In retrospect this is not at all surprising. Mekas's sensibilities are those 
of a Romantic. In three of his films he portrays himself reading books; in 
Guns of the Trees, it is Shelley's Prometheus Unbound that opens and 
closes the film; throughout Rabbitshit Haikus (1962-1963), which he 
made while on the set of his brother's Hallelujah the Hills, he is reading 
Blake; in Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, subtitled Walden, it is Thoreau. 
The Romantic phenomenology was difficult to perceive in the avant-garde 
cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, but easier when the mythopoeic cinema 
in the early 1960s manifested itself. Jonas Mekas was there to recognize 
it and celebrate it. In 1958, he had been named the film critic of the Village 
Voice. By the early 1960s the paper had grown from local to national 
circulation with particular influence in the arts. Thus by the time he be- 
came the champion of the New American Cinema, Mekas was one of the 
most powerful film critics in America. The first clear sign of a shift in his 



attitude toward the older avant-gardists was his choice of Maya Deren as 
his substitute critic at the Village Voice in the summer of i960 when he 
took time off to concentrate on the shooting of Guns of the Trees. 

Had he confined his activities to writing and making films, Jonas 
Mekas might not have been quite as powerful as he was to become in the 
early 1960s. On September 28, i960, he called the first meeting of the 
New American Cinema Group, twenty-three independent film-makers of 
whom only one, Gregory Markopoulos, aside from Mekas himself, falls 
within the scope of this book. Of the several points outlined in their man- 
ifesto, one was to have revolutionary significance but not as envisioned by 
that group. The sixth point of the manifesto called for the foundation of 
"our own cooperative distribution center." 

For a year Emile de Antonio tried to distribute a handful of 35mm 
short and feature films theatrically before a true film-makers' cooperative 
could be founded. During this unsuccessful effort, Mekas accepted the 
position of organizer of a series of special screenings, most of them on 
weekend midnights, at the Charles Theater on New York's Lower East 
Side. There he initiated a number of one-man shows for avant-garde film- 
makers whose work had never been completely shown in New York. He 
followed this up with an article on the film-makers in the Voice. He also 
began the tradition of open-house screenings to which film-makers brought 
unknown works, rushes, and works-in-progress. It was at such an open- 
house that he discovered Ken Jacobs, who was screening parts of Little 
Stabs at Happiness. 

In the fall of 1961 Maya Deren died. Stan Brakhage happened to be 
in New York at the time, holding a series of screenings of his recent films 
at the Provincetown Playhouse. Since Reflections on Black (1955), Cinema 
16, the only distributor of avant-garde films in the 1950s, had refused to 
handle his work or even to show it in their yearly programs devoted to 
the "experimental" film. When Mekas saw the ensemble of work Brakhage 
had produced between 1958 and 1961, he was sensitive to its quality. He 
awarded Brakhage the fourth Independent Film Award (Film Culture 24) 
for The Dead and Prelude: Dog Star Man. Since then the award has gone 
exclusively to avant-gardists: Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Harry Smith, 
Gregory Markopoulos, Michael Snow, Kenneth Anger, Robert Breer, and 
James Broughton. 

In 1962 Mekas himself took over the film distribution project. By this 
time the initial experiment at the Charles Theater had grown into a series 
of screenings, at first weekly and later daily, in various rented theaters 
around Manhattan. By 1962 the group of film-makers who had antici- 
pated a radical change in the production and distribution of feature films 
in America had given up that idea. Yet Mekas realized that an outlet was 
needed for the films of Brakhage, Markopoulos, Menken, Jacobs, Smith, 
etc. He appointed the young film-maker David Brooks as manager of the 
cooperative. Its first catalogue contained only Guns of the Trees, Pull My 
Daisy, and the films of Gregory Markopoulos out of the list originally 


proposed by the group. Cassavetes's Shadows, Clarke's The Connection, 
and even Adolfas Mekas' Hallelujah the Hills were being distributed com- 

It would be several years before the rental fees of the Film-Makers' 
Cooperative and the income from the Film-Makers' Showcase, later called 
the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, would produce income of even a thou- 
sand dollars a year for the film-makers. Yet they provided a center where 
film-makers could see each other's work; and Film Culture and the Village 
Voice brought news of this activity around the country. On the model of 
the Film-Makers' Showcase, Bruce Baillie founded Canyon Cinema outside 
San Francisco in 1962 and soon after that moved it to Berkeley. By 1963 
there was a Canyon Cinema Cooperative. 

In "Notes on the New American Cinema" {Film Culture 24 1962), 
Mekas attempted a comprehensive synthesis of the realist and visionary 
tendencies within the independent cinema. He speaks of Morris Engel, 
Lionel Rogosin, John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Sidney Meyers, Rickey 
Leacock, as well as Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Ron Rice, Marie Men- 
ken, Stan Vanderbeek, and several others, but in the polemical sections of 
the essay, "Part Two: A Few Statements on the New American Artist as 
a Man" and "Part Three: Summing Up, Connecting the Style with Man," 
he employs the language of Romantic and Abstract Expressionist aesthetics 
(the essay opens with quotations from De Kooning and Shelley): 

The new artist, by directing his ear inward, is beginning to 
catch bits of man's true vision. By simply being new (which 
means, by listening deeper than their other contemporaries), 
Brakhage and Breer contribute to the liberation of man's spirit 
from the dead matter of culture: they open new vistas for life. In 
this sense, an old art is immoral — it keeps man's spirit in bond- 
age to Culture. The very destructiveness of the modern artist, his 
anarchy, as in Happenings, or, even, action painting, is, 
therefore, a confirmation of life and freedom. 9 

In the notes on "Improvisation," "The Shaky Camera," and "Acting," he 
makes it clear that he is less interested in the realistic world view of Engel, 
Clarke, Rogosin, and Leacock than in the way they substitute a kind of 
spontaneous performance for classical acting. 

Mekas's involvement with a theory of acting extends back almost as 
far as his involvement with Romantic poetry. Before they left Lithuania, 
he and Adolfas had set up a regional theater. Later in a German camp for 
displaced persons they studied with Ippolitas Tvirbotas, a teacher of the 
Stanislavsky method. But it was the transformation of acting into perfor- 
mance, or the breakdown of the difference between the performer and his 
role, that seems to have particularly interested him in the later 1950s and 
early 1960s. The first four Independent Film Awards, for instance, show 
a progressive preference for the reality of performance. In Shadows, actors 


play in a spontaneous and improvising manner; in Pull My Daisy, non- 
actors — poets and a painter — play themselves, in Primary the performers 
are Senators Kennedy and Humphrey, playing for the presidency as filmed 
with Leacock's passionate detachment. Finally, in the Brakhage films, the 
film-maker makes himself, his family, indeed his life, the subject of his 
film; it is passionate self-involvement. 

Although this sensitivity to a philosophy of performance is only part — 
and not a dominant part — of his aesthetic, it accounts for some positions 
and tendencies in his criticism. If we reconsider his text on the "Baudelai- 
rean cinema" in this light, the principle underlying its historical schema 
reveals itself. Time soon proved him wrong in announcing the death of 
"the symbolist-surrealist cinema of intellectual meanings." Within a year 
Twice a Man, Scorpio Rising, Heaven and Earth Magic, and much of Dog 
Star Man would be publicly screened for the first time; Ken Jacobs was 
about to begin shooting his most explicitly symbolical and mythopoeic 
film, The Sky Socialist. The fundamental change of the early 1960s within 
the avant-garde film, as I have shown in several places, was the emergence 
of the mythopoeic film, a direct descendant of the trance film, which had 
undergone a gradual but fragmented evolution in the 1950s. 

In the "Baudelairean cinema" article, it seems to me that Mekas mis- 
took a flurry of contemporary activity for the avant-garde tradition. He 
also seems to have equated the somnambulistic performances within the 
trance films with their total meaning while astutely sensing that the mag- 
nification of symbolism and the image of the possessed quester were inti- 
mately intertwined. What he did not foresee was a new form which could 
be even more symbolically and intellectually complex without the som- 

To Mekas's credit one must add that in the early 1960s a dimension 
of social criticism entered at least some of the avant-garde films. The pre- 
vious chapter touches upon some manifestations in California. Mekas's 
own film, Guns of the Trees, which is formally closer to The End than to 
the films of Cassavetes, Clarke, Rogosin, or Engel, was a social protest. 
Scorpio Rising can be viewed in this way. The films from this period by 
Stan Vanderbeek and Richard Preston, and of course Jacobs's Star Span- 
gled to Death and Blonde Cobra, attack aspects of American society. 

Jacobs, in his own highly personal view of the history of the avant- 
garde film, used the term "underground film," which became a journalistic 
commonplace after 1962. Stan Vanderbeek seems to have invented the 
term in 1961 (Film Quarterly, XIV, 4) to describe the period from the late 
1950s until the mid-1960s, including his own films. Interestingly, Jacobs 
claims that period ended when avant-garde films became "fashionable." 
He partially blames Mekas for contributing to its end by "promoting a 
star system." It is true that an issue of Film Culture (Summer 1964) had 
a center section of photographs of "Stars of the New American Cinema," 
and, perhaps more to the point, Mekas dismissed the scope of Star Span- 
gled to Death with a discussion of Smith's performance: 


I recently saw a rough cut of Jacobs' new film, Star Spangled to 
Death, a three-hour movie he has been shooting for the past 
seven years, and I was surprised to find in it the beginning of 
Scotch Tape and Blonde Cobra and the beautiful earliest work 
of Jack Smith where he does as good a job as the early Chaplin — 
which I know is a big statement, but you'll see someday it's 
true. 10 

This again is the manifestation of a sensitivity to performance and an 
excitement over new possibilities in acting. But neither the transition 
Mekas proposes from Symbolist-Surrealist to disengaged and free or that 
of Jacobs from "narcissistic" to Underground to "fashionable" transcends 
Mekas's or Jacobs's sense of himself at the center of things. When he made 
the "Baudelairean cinema" statement, Mekas obviously saw himself on 
the side of the free, looking backwards; Jacobs uses the underground plat- 
form to look in both directions. 

Jonas Mekas's theoretical interest in performance had a more pro- 
found effect upon his criticism and his film-making when it intersected 
with his poetics. The concept of the self is the locus of that intersection. 
The title of Stanislavsky's book, as Mekas once pointed out to a group of 
young film-makers, is The Actor Works upon Himself. In "Notes on the 
New American Cinema," he says, "Improvisation is the highest form of 
condensation; it points to the very essence of a thought, an emotion, a 
movement." What had been a method of preparing actors to perform roles 
in plays becomes, in Mekas's transformation, the central process of the 

Improvisation is, I repeat, the highest form of concentration, 
of awareness, of intuitive knowledge, when the imagination be- 
gins to dismiss the prearranged, the contrived mental structures, 
and goes directly to the depths of the matter. This is the true 
meaning of improvisation, and it is not a method at all; it is, 
rather, a state of being necessary for any inspired creation. It is 
an ability that every true artist develops by a constant and life- 
long inner vigilance, by the cultivation — yes! — of his senses. 11 

Jonas Mekas, following the initial efforts of Maya Deren, devoted 
much of his time and resources to sustaining a "visionary company" 12 of 
film-makers through his criticism and his organization of the Film-Makers' 
Cooperative, the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, the Friends of the New Cin- 
ema (which gave small grants to approximately twelve film-makers each 
year between 1964 and 1971), and Anthology Film Archives. Although 
his work is the most spectacular example of commitment to the vision of 
a community of film-makers, it is supported and reflected in similar but 
less sustained efforts by many of the film-makers I have been considering: 
Maya Deren as the first propagandist for the American avant-garde film 



and the founder of the Creative Film Foundation, Frank Stauffacher as 
founder of Art in Cinema, Bruce Baillie as founder of the Canyon Cinema 
Cooperative, Peter Kubelka as designer of Anthology Film Archives' In- 
visible Theater, and Stan Brakhage as a lecturer and enthusiast, sometimes 
in the guise of a Savonarola, attempting to bridge the generations and 
geographical isolation of film-makers. To this list should be added Ken 
Jacobs as the first director of the Millennium Film Workshop between 
1966 and 1968 which made equipment and instruction freely available to 
aspiring film-makers in New York. 

But to return to the films of Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith, it is necessary 
to consider first a film-maker who exerted a considerable influence on both 
of them, as well as on Stan Brakhage, Larry Jordan, and Jonas Mekas. He 
is Joseph Cornell. I have already discussed Brakhage's encounter with Cor- 
nell at the turning point of his style. After years of correspondence, Larry 
Jordan spent several weeks during the summer of 1968 at Cornell's home 
in Queens, New York, assisting him in his well-known work as a collagist 
and box-maker. He also photographed, under Cornell's direction, a very 
evocative film of a trip to a graveyard. 13 Cornell gave him three related 
collage movies which he had been working on for several years with in- 
structions on how to complete them. In 1970, under the sponsorship of 
Anthology Film Archives, where Cornell's films were made available to the 
public for the first time, Jordan completed all three — Cotillion, The Mid- 
night Party, and The Children's Party. 

Cornell's first collage film, Rose Hobart (later tentatively renamed 
Tristes Tropiques), was made in the late 1930s and first shown at Julien 
Levy's art gallery in New York. It represents the intersection of his involve- 
ment with collage and his love of the cinema; for Cornell had been for 
many years a collector of films and motion-picture stills. Rose Hobart is 
a re-editing of Columbia's jungle drama, East of Borneo, starring Rose 
Hobart. It is a breathtaking example of the potential for surrealistic im- 
agery within a conventional Hollywood film once it is liberated from its 
narrative causality. In reducing the feature film to approximately fifteen 
minutes and replacing the soundtrack with music, he concentrates on the 
moods and reactions of the heroine. Since he often does not show to whom 
she is talking or to what she is reacting, her fears and anxieties seem to 
be in response to the very mystery which the collagist's editing has made 
of the film. Two men — an Asian in a turban and an American — and two 
women appear fleetingly throughout the film without revealing their roles. 

Among his tactics to intensify fragmentation are cutting to a scene just 
before it fades out, combining in rapid succession a series of similar en- 
counters, intercutting two scenes from different times as if they were si- 
multaneous, and showing the closing or opening of a door without the 
person entering or leaving. Because of this fragmentation, certain images 
take on surrealistic dimensions, such as the natives driving crocodiles into 
the river with poles or a curtain pulled to reveal a belching volcano. 


By the radical employment of hysteron-proteron which alters the log- 
ical order, the film-maker gives the impression of repetition and ruptures 
linear time and attendant causality. Several times he cuts from the dying 
or dead man with a turban to shots of him fully alive. At the end of the 
film, the man dies metaphorically; as Rose Hobart stands before his bed 
or his bier, the sun quickly passes through a full eclipse, and then, by a 
skillful joining of shots, seems to fall from the sky like a pebble into the 
pool we had seen before and disappear under a surface of slow-motion 
ripples. She lowers her head, as if reacting to his death in the final shot. 14 

Ken Jacobs, who worked very briefly for Cornell while he was making 
Star Spangled to Death, borrowed Rose Hobart to study and to show to 
Jack Smith. He described his reaction to the film: 

I was seeing Jack again and I told him, "Jack, you've got to 
see this movie." We looked at it again and again, and we were 
both knocked out. Jack tried to act at first like a little bit re- 
moved, like I was overstating it, and then he broke down and 
said, "No, it's very good." We looked at it in every possible way: 
on the ceiling, in mirrors, bouncing it all over the room, in cor- 
ners, in focus, out of focus, with a blue filter that Cornell had 
given me, without it, backwards. It was just like an eruption of 
energy and it was another reinforcement of this idea I had for 
making this shit film [Star Spangled to Death] that would be 
broken apart and then again there would be an order. 15 

Although Jacobs describes his reaction to Rose Hobart in terms of the film 
he was making then, its influence extended to his 1969 film, Tom, Tom, 
the Piper's Son. There he transformed an old American film into a mod- 
ernist work, not by re-editing and showing it through a filter but by re- 
photographing it at different speeds, accenting the grain, and indeed per- 
forming a series of operations on it similar to the variations with which 
he had projected Cornell's film. 

In his later films — both those photographed by Rudy Burkhardt, Stan 
Brakhage, and Larry Jordan and the collage films which Jordan com- 
pleted — Joseph Cornell describes the marginal area where the conscious 
and the unconscious meet. These are films which affirm a sustained present 
moment in which a quality of reminiscence is implicated. Frequently, they 
share the themes of his boxes and collages and make allusion in their titles 
or their imagery to Romantic and Symbolist poetry, which had been a 
continual source of inspiration to him. Thematically, there are figures 
within each of the films who are proposed as tentative mediators, through 
whose consciousness these camera movements might be experienced. 

In A Legend for Fountains there are three levels of mediation (a 
woman, children, birds). The first section, called "Fragments," establishes 
a series of motifs upon which the second section, without a title, elabo- 


rates. A young lady slowly descends a dark staircase, passes through a 
hallway and out into the street. Looking down the same hallway, we im- 
mediately see her returning with the same slow pace. As if to record the 
time lost in that elliptical jump-cut, the camera shows "fragments" of her 
walk: she stares through the windows of a sandwich shop and a toy store; 
she hurries around a corner and rests against a wall covered with graffiti; 
her breath condenses in the cold air. The camera dwells on children she 
sees playing in the street; it slowly explores the graffiti and finally follows 
the flight of birds among the buildings above her. 

The second and somewhat longer section repeats and extends the im- 
agery of the first, beginning with the moments before she left the building. 
An opening title, "... your solitude, shy in hotels . . . ," quotes a source 
of inspiration for the film, Garcia Lorca's "Tu Infancia en Menton," from 
which the title also comes. The young lady sits by a window stroking a 
black cat. The camera observes her silhouette from inside, and her face 
can be seen under the reflections on the glass from without. When she 
leaves the building, the image fixes upon the reflections on the window of 
the moving door, as in the opening of Brakhage's Anticipation of the 
Night. Outside, the attention shifts between her, the birds on top of the 
buildings, the graffiti on the walls, and the children playing amid trash- 

Whenever he was asked about the relationship between his films and 
his boxes and collages, Cornell denied that there was any. The films, he 
sometimes said, "never got off the ground." Nevertheless, they share a 
number of recurrent themes with the boxes: the child, the aviary, the hotel, 
and of course the window. The bits of letters and newspapers pasted to 
the back wall of some of his boxes function similarly to the graffiti-covered 
surfaces of A Legend for Fountains. 

The serial structure, involving a return to and a reorganization of el- 
ements in two or more related works, which unites many of his boxes and 
collages, extends to his films. The double structure of A Legend for Foun- 
tains is one example. The most mystifying transformation by variation that 
he achieved in film was in making Gnir Rednow. He reversed left to right 
and printed backwards the film he had commissioned from Stan Brakhage, 
Wonder Ring, and in so doing, he introduced a differential which made 
the film characteristically his own. In the three collage films that Larry 
Jordan completed, the serial structure is very apparent. All three involve 
the re-editing of a film about a children's party that the film-maker found. 
He creates three related contexts of the child's consciousness by combining 
the dancing, feasting, and games of the party with circus acts, telescopes, 
constellations of stars, Zeus throwing thunderbolts in a primitive film, and 

What Jack Smith gained from seeing Cornell's first collage film remains 
a matter of speculation. Although his first long film, Flaming Creatures 
(1963), does not contain collage material, it involves the transformation 
and "liberation" of Hollywood stereotypes in an ironical recreation of the 



The window as a veil in Joseph Cornell's A Legend 
for Fountains. 

pseudo-Arabian world of Maria Montez films. His unfinished Normal 
Love (1963-) also draws upon the mythology of the conventional movies 
for its pantheon of monsters. In No President (1969), which was shown 
once and then dismantled, he incorporated a found documentary on the 
life of Wendell Willkie into a film of his own. 

In 1963 and 1964 Smith published two articles in Film Culture which 
outline the way he views the cinema. The first was on Maria Montez and 
the second on Josef von Sternberg. Both of them assert that the essence of 
cinema is the visual in opposition to the narrative, which retards compre- 

People never know why they do what they do. But they 
have to have explanations for themselves and others. 

So Von Sternberg's movies had to have plots even tho they 
already had them inherent in the images. What he did was make 
movies naturally — he lived in a visual world. The explanations 
plots he made up out of some logic having nothing to do with 
the visuals of his films. 16 

He argues for an appreciation of Maria Montez films as pure cinema, once 
the narrative line is ignored: 



These were light films — if we really believed that films are visual 
it would be possible to believe these rather pure cinema — weak 
technique, true, but rich imagery. . . . 

The primitive allure of movies is a thing of light and shad- 
ows. A bad film is one which doesn't flicker and shift and move 
through lights and shadows, contrasts, textures by way of light. 
If I have these I don't mind phoniness (or the sincerity of clever 
actors), simple minded plots (or novelistic "good" plots), non- 
sense or seriousness (I don't feel nonsense in movies as a threat 
to my mind since I don't go to movies for ideas that arise from 
sensibleness of ideas). Images evoke feelings and ideas that are 
suggested by feeling. 17 

Visual truth, for Smith, reveals more than acting intends: 

But in my movies I know that I prefer non actor stars to 
"convincing" actor stars — only a personality that exposes itself — 
if through moldiness (human slips can convince me — in movies) 
and I was very convinced by Maria Montez in her particular 
ease of her great beauty and integrity. 18 

Applying the same perspective to von Sternberg, he discovers not only a 
plastic play of light and shadow but a revelation of sexual presence: 

His expression was of the erotic realm — the neurotic gothic 
deviated sex -colored world and it was a turning inside out of 
himself and magnificent. You had to use your eyes to know this 
tho because the sound track babbled inanities — it alleged Die- 
trich was an honest jewel thief, noble floosie, fallen woman, etc. 
to cover up the visuals. In the visuals she was none of those. She 
was V.S. himself. A flaming neurotic — nothing more or less — no 
need to know she was rich, poor, innocent, guilty, etc. Your eye 
if you could use it told you more interesting things (facts?) than 
those. Dietrich was his visual projection — a brilliant transvestite 
in a world of delirious unreal adventures. Thrilled by his/her 
own movement — by superb taste in light, costumery, textures, 
movement, subject and camera, subject camera/revealing faces — 
in fact all revelation but visual revelation. 19 

Nowhere has Jack Smith spoken as well about himself as in this passage 
allegedly about von Sternberg's Dietrich. Flaming Creatures deliberately 
manifests what he finds implicated in Maria Montez's and von Sternberg's 
films, and without the interference of a plot. When he brings to the fore 
what has been latent in those films — visual texture, androgynous sexual 
presence, exotic locations (the Araby of Montez's films or the Spain, China, 
and Morocco of von Sternberg's) — and at the same time completely dis- 



cards what held these films together (elaborate narratives), he utterly trans- 
forms his sources and uncovers a mythic center from which they had been 
closed off. Ken Kelman, in the first article on Flaming Creatures in Film 
Culture, found that it "echoes with ancient ritual chant, with Milton and 
with Dante . . . for the very scope and scale of sin becomes demonic in a 
Miltonian sense, and Flaming Creatures might be subtitled Pandemonium 
Regained, a paean not for the Paradise Lost, but for the Hell Satan 
gained." 20 

Although Jack Smith dispenses with plot, he retains the structure of 
the scene in his film. There are ten scenes which blend into one another 
with deliberately obscured boundaries. Their sequence, for the most part, 
seems determined by rhythm and dramatic effect rather than by narrative. 
The move toward and away from a central core of three episodes in which 
the flaming creatures die in an orgy and, after an interlude, are reborn 
gives a centripetal form to the cyclic myth. The style of photography 
changes with the scenes, orchestrating them as if they were movements of 
a musical work. 

Smith first encountered the use of outdated raw film to produce 
washed-out or high-contrast textures in Jacobs's Star Spangled to Death, 
but it was seeing Rice's The Flower Thief that convinced him of its pos- 
sibilities. In Flaming Creatures he far exceeds either of these films in the 
employment of murky, burned-out, or high-contrast textures to create dif- 
ferent depths and ranges of space. In the first scene, as figures pass back 
and forth in front of a poster on which the credits of the film have been 
ornately written, the gray, washed-out picture quality gives the impression 
that he was filming in a cloud. The narrowing of the tonal range obscures 
the sense of depth, which Smith capitalizes on by cluttering the panning 
frame with actors and with details of limbs, breasts, a penis, and puckered 
lips so that not only depth disappears but the vertical and horizontal co- 
ordinates as well. 

By way of contrast, the subsequent scene takes place in the clearly 
defined space before a painted backdrop of a large white bush in a white 
flowerpot. He placed before it a transvestite in a white dress sniffing white 
flowers and a woman in a black nightgown. They flirt; she wiggles to the 
Spanish music playing throughout the scene; the transvestite waves a 
gloved hand; they meet, kiss, and pose together. The camera remains sta- 
tionary, occasionally cutting to a closer shot, isolating just one of them. 
But before their relationship develops, the scene temporarily shifts to a 
group of creatures putting on lipstick in panning, mostly aerial views. The 
sound becomes the voice of an advertisement for "a new heart-shaped 
lipstick that stays on and on." When the film-maker's voice interrupts the 
advertiser to ask, "Is there a lipstick that doesn't come off when you suck 
cock?" he calmly answers, "Yes, indelible lipstick." Smith seems uncon- 
vinced. He asks, "But how does a man get lipstick off his cock?" to which 
the advertiser tartly replies, "A man is not supposed to have lipstick on 
his cock." Then he continues his unctuous pitch for the lipstick. The ad- 


vertising voice is so authentic that there is a shock when he first answers 
the question. Before that, it might have been recorded directly from radio 
or television. 

While the speech continues, the camera wanders over a tangle of nude 
and half-nude bodies so intertwined that they seem a single androgynous 
figure of many heads (all applying lipstick, including bearded men), 
breasts, and penises. But after two brief transitional tableaux — a group of 
creatures falling down in slow motion and a group composition with the 
sole of a dirty foot projecting out at the camera — the attention returns to 
the couple before the flowerpot backdrop. They chase each other back and 
forth offscreen to the left and right. The camera rests on the empty scene 
as one or the other rushes across the screen. There is no logic to the di- 
rection or sequence of their chase; the woman might move from right to 
left, her pursuer in the opposite direction; once they even cross paths. But 
eventually the transvestite captures and throws the woman in black to the 

Then the camera begins to vibrate, blur, and participate as the new 
scene, the orgy, commences. The creatures immediately converge upon 
their victim, strip her, smell her armpits, poke her genitals, and crawl over 
her. This rape sets in motion a general orgy which the camera, now wildly 
shaking, glimpses without making specific. Initially faint screams grow so 
loud that they drown out the music at the very moment when the orgy 
either sets off or coincides with an earthquake. The whole set goes into 
spasms; a lantern sways frantically; plaster falls from the ceiling on the 
writhing creatures, who seem to have intensified their frenzy in the knowl- 
edge that this might be their final bacchanal. 

Their death evokes the myth of the seasons. Leaves fall upon their 
scattered bodies. Towards the end of the orgy the raped woman had stag- 
gered to her feet, but she collapsed and was dragged off by a second 
transvestite, past the dead and dying creatures. But when the now slow- 
moving camera returns to her, she and her abductor are also dead. The 
earthquake as a cosmic orgasm turned the sparagmos of the victim into 
the sparagmos of the bacchantes. 

Amid passages of silence and bits of very low violin music, Smith 
dwells upon the empty scene. A bit of gauze blows before the familiar 
backdrop; the lantern lies broken on the floor; for a long time the image 
settles on a fly and his shadow on the white cloth of the backdrop. With 
a sudden burst of dated honky-tonk music, the lid of a coffin begins to 
move. But Smith cuts away to the void, and silence ensues, as if this shot 
had been premature. The proleptic image and its sound makes the empty 
shots that follow it all the more barren. 

The myth of the vampire is invoked when Smith finally returns to the 
coffin scene. A transvestite Marilyn Monroe rises from it in a white burial 
gown, holding lilies. To the honky-tonk song, she stretches and surveys 
the dead bodies and debris; then she chooses a corpse to attack. Aroused 
in this act, she lifts her dress and begins to play with her penis. It is not 



her being a vampire but her sexuality that signals the rebirth of the crea- 
tures. The lantern hangs again from the ceiling. Beneath it, the creatures 
dance — first the Monroe figure and her victim, then others as they revive 
and join in. 

The concluding three scenes of the film are a sequence of ecstatic 
dances. In the first, all the creatures in white costumes dance together. The 
burned-out photography presents a dazzling effect of white on white and 
a depth of figure behind figure twirling and swaying in the crowded arena 
before the backdrop. Then a Spanish dancer in black drag with a rose in 
her teeth does a mad solo whirl to bullfight music. Finally, as if not to be 
upstaged, the Monroe figure appears puffing on a cigarette, filmed through 
the lantern. With the sound of the dated rock and roll record, "Be-bop- 
alula," she performs the final dancing rites intercut with a tableau of an 
odalisque, one breast exposed, surrounded by Arabs, one of whom points 
to her nipple. 

The final third of Flaming Creatures is a continuous surge toward the 
ecstatic. The camera alternates between static and slowly panning shots of 
the dancing crowd and disorienting aerial views. The visual poles of black 
and white which the pursuing transvestite and the woman in the night- 
gown represented in the first half of the film are transposed to the white 
Monroe figure and the dark Spanish dancer in the second half. 

To see Flaming Creatures is to understand some of Jack Smith's dis- 
satisfaction with the way Ken Jacobs portrayed him or allowed him to 
reveal himself in Blonde Cobra. "Jack says I made the film too heavy," 
Jacobs says in his note for the fifth Film-Makers' Cooperative catalogue. 
The infantilism, cruelty, transvestism, and irony that contribute to the trag- 
edy of delusions in Blonde Cobra reappear as factors in a myth of recov- 
ered innocence in Flaming Creatures, where the triumph may be ironic, 
but it is not at all problematic. 

A triumph, in the sense of a triumphal march, is the subject of the 
film Jack Smith began to film immediately after finishing Flaming Crea- 
tures. In fact, he called it The Great Pasty Triumph before changing the 
title to Normal Love. In the rough cut that he exhibited in 1964, it was 
a paratactic parade of episodes describing a pantheon of monsters from 
horror films: the Mummy, the Werewolf, the Mongolian Child, the Spider, 
as well as the Mermaid, Cobra Woman, and assorted creatures more or 
less derived from the stock mythology of Hollywood. The projection of 
the rushes of these scenes throughout 1963 at midnight after the programs 
of the Film-Makers' Cinematheque or at Ron Rice's loft was the occasion 
for important meetings of film-makers, actors, and critics. Each episode 
was a self-contained, sensuous exploration of a simple event structured by 
scene, photographed on outdated color stock that produced ravishing ex- 
panses of pastel greens, pinks and blues. 

Of all the major film-makers of the mythopoeic stage of the American 
avant-garde film, Jack Smith was perhaps the most gifted with imaginative 
powers. Each sequence of Normal Love as it was serially unveiled dem- 


onstrated the sureness with which Smith could transform his creature- 
actors and the landscape in which he placed them into elements of a mythic 
vision of redeemed innocence and heightened sensuality. In slow, steady 
shots one could see the green Mummy wading after a nude woman in a 
pond a of waterlilies; the Mermaid taking a milk bath or having a mud- 
throwing fight with the Werewolf; a pier covered with the bodies of dead 
or sleeping transvestites in pink gowns projecting into the azure sea; the 
emerald Cobra Woman exploring a dark cave; a watermelon feast; a giant 
pink birthday cake with half a dozen creatures dancing on it, including a 
very pregnant woman. 

Other film-makers, impressed by Smith's imaginative faculties, have 
thought of making use of his imagery. Ron Rice often accompanied Smith 
as he was shooting Normal Love. They tended to return to his loft with 
most of the cast, still in their costumes, after the day's filming. At first Rice 
made some casual film studies of the actors swinging on the hammocks in 
his loft. Later he expanded them into the production of Chumlum (1964). 

The texture and structure of Rice's film is altogether different from 
Smith's. Throughout Chumlum there are usually at least two layers of 
moving imagery in superimposition. The compounding of figures, cos- 
tumes, swinging movements, and the simultaneous fusion of side and aerial 
views flatten the space, thicken the pastel tones in deep and muddled col- 
ors, obscure the individual roles, and fragment the actions. Chumlum 
seems a continuously even, unaccented web of visual textures. The smooth- 
ness of the visual mesh is supported by the drone-like music of Angus 
MacLise on the chumlum, from which the title comes. 

The fragmentation of events and the tactics suppressing internal mod- 
ulations give Rice's film a sense of temporal suspension. The inclusion of 
punch-holes that usually are to be found at the beginning and end of a 
hundred foot strip of raw film and the apparent minimum of editing (the 
enjambment of different layers of superimposition suggests this) indicate 
that Chumlum is made up of approximately ten rolls of film composed in 
the camera. Unlike Harry Smith with Late Super impositions, which was 
shot the same way, Rice did not accent the difference between the whole 
rolls in assembling them. 

At the end of the film he shifts from indoor scenes, all shot in his 
studio, to an outdoor section. But he underplays this change by using a 
reel superimposing both indoors and outdoors at the very beginning. 
Within the center of the film, he seems to have subverted the natural order 
of the reels (that of the shooting) so that actions would appear inconclusive 
and repetitive. Toward the middle, he shows Jack Smith in an Arabian 
costume with a fake mustache, smoking hashish. The film becomes his 
reverie in which time is stretched or folded over itself. 

In the outdoor conclusion, which intensifies the play of color and rep- 
etition, he shows the actors, still in their costumes, walking to a log house 
in the woods, their gowns and feet tangled in briars. He filmed this mo- 
ment twice in superimposition, slightly out of synchronization, as a re- 



solving metaphor for the "folded" temporality of the whole film. If there 
is a development or progress in the film, it is from indoors to outdoors, 
from swinging, crawling, and dancing in the harem to dancing in the sky 
over Coney Island (through superimposition) — an image which recalls the 
end of The Flower Thief where Taylor Mead dissolves into the sea. 

Chumlum and Late Superimpositions belong with Little Stabs at Hap- 
piness, some of Larry Jordan's films, Brakhage's Song V, and Markopou- 
los's Galaxie and Ming Green as manifestations of the growing confidence 
in the early 1960s in the process of composing a film within the camera. 
This direct method found its spokesman and one of its leading practition- 
ers in Jonas Mekas as he came to devote more and more of his energies 
to his film diary. 

Unlike the literary diary, the film diary does not follow a day-by-day 
chronology. Structurally, it corresponds more to a notebook, but in its 
drive towards a schematic or fragmented expression of the totality of the 
film-maker's life, it is more like a diary, perhaps one in which the entry 
dates have been lost and the pages scrambled. Mekas and younger diarists 
such as Andrew Noren and Warren Sonbert devote their creative energy 
to shooting, constructing, and revising their filmed lives. 

Mekas's Diaries, Notes and Sketches (1964-1969) and Reminiscences 
of a Journey to Lithuania (1971) are exercises in Romantic autobiography. 
Mekas constantly weaves together celebrations of the present moment, 
immediately and unironically present on the screen, with elegiac and ironic 
allusions to a presence that is forever absent to the camera lens: the vision 
of nature and of his childhood. Like all of the films brought together in 
this chapter, Mekas's two diaries are versions of the myth of lost innocence 
and the failed quest for its recovery. The credo of his commitment to the 
Romantic dialectic is an article from 1964, "Notes on Some New Movies 
and Happiness," in which he combines observations on the films of Ken 
Jacobs, Ron Rice, Joseph Cornell, and others with thoughts on happiness 
and sadness from his childhood memories. He writes: 

It is neither a coincidence nor anything strange that exactly the 
same men who have tasted a fool's happiness, give us also the 
deepest intuitions of the tragic sense of life. 

Imitation of the true emotion. Sentimentality. No oneness. 
No true peace. (Who knows what true peace is?) Nostalgia of 
things of nature. Or are we going into neo-Romanticism? And 
what does it mean? Or am I going into neo-Romanticism? And 
this essay is nothing but pieces of my own new film? Perhaps. 21 

That new film was Diaries, Notes and Sketches. Mekas presented an 
extended synopsis on a giant sheet of paper to all the viewers at its pre- 
miere, prefaced by these remarks: 


This film being what it is, i.e., a series of personal notes on 
events, people (friends) and Nature (Seasons) — the Author won't 
mind (he is almost encouraging it) if the Viewer will choose to 
watch only certain parts of the work (film), according to the 
time available to him, according to his preferences, or any other 
good reason. . . . 

A note in the beginning says, that this is the First Draft of 
the Diaries. Why should the Author permit then, one may ask, 
the unpolished or half-polished edition to come out? His answer 
is, he thought that despite the roughness of sound and some 
parts of the images, there is still enough in them — he felt — to 
make them of some interest to some of his friends and a few 
strangers. In order to go to the next stage of polishing, he felt, 
he had to look at the footage as it is, many many more times, 
and gain more perspective to it — that's why this edition. 

For a screening of this film at the Museum of Modern Art, Mekas 

Since 1950 I have been keeping a film diary. I have been walk- 
ing around with my Bolex and reacting to the immediate reality: 
situations, friends, New York, seasons of the year. On some 
days I shot ten frames, on others ten seconds, still on others ten 
minutes. Or I shoot nothing. When one writes diaries, it's a ret- 
rospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, 
and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to 
react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either 
you get it now or you don't get it at all. To go back and shoot 
it later, it would mean restaging, be it events or feelings. To get 
it now, as it happens, demands the total mastery of one's tools 
(in this case, Bolex): it has to register my state of feeling (and 
the memories) as I react. Which also means that I had to do all 
the structuring (editing) right there, during the shooting, in the 
camera. 22 

In this text, which unites the return of "improvisation" with film con- 
struction, the film-maker is forgetting or underestimating the importance 
of editing and even more of sound of his own film. It is true that within 
an episode he sticks to the material as the scene was shot without restruc- 
turing except for inserting titles. When he says, a little later, that the ma- 
terials were "strung together in chronological order," he is taking liberties; 
there were no violent disruptions of chronology, but some events were 
reshuffled. Of this I can be certain because my family and I appear in it 
achronologically. The very use of Walden as a structural element attests 
the editing architecture of the film. 


The pixilated imagery, blazing by in fast motion, provides the central 
and most often repeated metaphor for the temporality of the present mo- 
ment. The nostalgia for a deeper and more authentic nature is invoked in 
the passages of speech and the titles. "I Thought of Home" at the begin- 
ning and end of the film and "Laukas, A Field, as Wide as Childhood" in 
the first reel. The distance between the present moment and the nostalgia 
is repeatedly mediated by the text of Walden, for in Diaries, Notes and 
Sketches the language of the text, the titles, and the film-maker's voice is 
the sole vehicle of reconciling the exiled past — the author's childhood in 
Lithuania — with the film camera's dependence on the here and now of its 
visual substance. 23 

In his next film, Reminiscences, he uses the occasion of his first return 
to Lithuania in twenty-seven years to construct a dialectical meditation on 
the meaning of exile, return, and art. The film is in three parts. In the first, 
he put together all the footage he had made (since he first bought a camera 
in 1950) of his early life in New York, concentrating on the gatherings of 
Lithuanian exiles, who "looked to me like strange, dying animals, in a 
place they didn't belong to, in a place they didn't recognize," as the film- 
maker says in his commentary within the film. In the center of the film is 
the movement of return by way of "one hundred glimpses" of Lithuania, 
the film-maker's mother, his family. The elegiac tone of the opening part, 
accented by the space of twenty years between the photography and the 
editing, and the commentary by the author, disappears in the middle ode, 
which accepts the inability to return in space (to Lithuania) as well as in 
time (to childhood). 

He resolves the contradictory movements of the first and second parts 
by celebrating the present with renewed vigor on the return trip via Vi- 
enna. There he shows us the lives of artists and thinkers (Hermann Nitsch 
and his castle, Peter Kubelka and the cellar where he makes wine, Witt- 
genstein's house, and the Americans Ken Jacobs and Annette Michelson, 
both visiting at the same time) whom he calls "Saints" in the identifying 
titles. By ending the film journal of his early years in New York and his 
long awaited return to Lithuania with portraits of his artist friends, one 
"pursuing his vision, without giving an inch, and heroically," another 
"who had the courage to remain a child in the purity of his seeing and his 
ecstasies," he defines his own triumph as an artist. In the last minutes he 
tells us, "I begin to believe again in the indestructibility of the human 

"A child in the purity of his seeing" is not the most accurate expression 
Mekas could have found for Ken Jacobs's visionary stance. Ken Jacobs too 
has a dialectical relationship with the myth of recovered innocence. His 
most direct attempt at the mythopoeic film, The Sky Socialist, which was 
shot between 1965 and 1967 and revised in 1986, grew out of his urge 
to address a monumental work to the Brooklyn Bridge, which he could 
observe from his loft window and roof in lower Manhattan. Like Hart 
Crane, whom he had not seriously read, he posited from his contemplation 



of the sheer magnificence of the bridge and the aspiration of the Roeblings, 
its builders, an eccentric form which weaves through history and invokes 
a sense of the divine in a world bereft (as far as Jacobs sees it) of divinity. 
In Crane's words, 

O Sleepless as the river under thee, 
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod, 
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend 
And of the curveship lend a myth to God. 

The inversion of a classical invocation, in which the bridge is asked to 
"lend a myth to God," is precisely the theme of Jacobs's film. "Roebling 
is the Sky Socialist," Jacobs has said, "and so am I as the maker of the 

After a proem of zooming and sweeping pans of the bridge, the action 
settles (originally for three hours, in the 1986 version for ninety minutes) 
with occasional revisits to the bridge and the river, which the film-maker 
calls "choral interludes" — on the roof, where two people "stand in for" 
(rather than act the roles of) the dead Anne Frank and Isadore Lhevinne, 
the author of two obscure American novels, Ariadne (1928) and Napo- 
leons All (1932), influenced by Symbolist prose. Despite the continual dis- 
couragement of Maurice, a Active incarnation of the principle of despair, 
Isadore and Anne fall in love and marry. 

The pace of The Sky Socialist is very leisurely; its movements are cho- 
reographed in a clearly defined deep space. In Jacobs's subsequent film, 
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, that space contracts to the grainy screen of 
rephotography and its time becomes an involuted version of the structural 

Tom, Tom begins and nearly ends with an old film of the same title 
made in 1905, quoted entirely both times. For approximately ninety 
minutes (the original lasts about ten minutes), Jacobs gives us his variations 
on the images and movements of that film. His Tom, Tom, as opposed to 
the original, has a grainy, pointillist texture (an inevitable result of filming 
off a screen or a homemade optical printer, which the structural cinema 
has capitalized on) and a compressed sense of space. In transposing, he 
changed the time of the original with slow motion, the scale with close- 
ups of background detail, the sequential order with repetitions and back- 
ward movements, and above all the kinesis by radically retarding the nar- 
rative of the original. Here the principle of elongation finds its clearest 
demonstration, which the structural cinema affirms in strong contrast to 
the beloved condensation of such film-makers as Anger, Brakhage, Belson, 
Markopoulos, Kubelka, and Breer. 

Jacobs's film is didactic in a specifically modernist tradition. He has 
recovered the graphic genius of the original film's source for at least the 
first and last of its eight tableaux — Hogarth's Southwark Fair; for it is the 
imagery and backgrounds of this etching that the anonymous film-maker 


Ken Jacobs's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son: flatness and grainy texture achieved 
through rephotography. 

transposed to film. We see a sensual tightrope walker whirling a hoop in 
slow motion, a hunchback rolling over and over, a crowd falling one by 
one out of a barn and almost floating into a haystack. There are intima- 
tions of Picasso's harlequins as well. 

Because of the directness of the mechanism he employs, Tom, Tom 
must be grouped with the structural films I shall discuss in the next chap- 
ter, despite Jacobs's tendency to rupture the forms of all of his films. In 
the three versions of the film I have seen, there is a marked difference of 
architecture. They each violate symmetry by appending a series of slow- 
motion details after the second presentation of the original film. The sec- 
ond version, however, introduces color inserts of a shadow play (another 
mixed form which Jacobs practices, especially in three-dimensional stereo- 
scope) which violently interrupt the continuity of the black-and-white film. 
Visually they are relaxing (so the film-maker describes their function), but 
structurally they are extremely disorienting. More in keeping with the tex- 
ture of the film, but nevertheless digressive, is a passage in the second and 
third versions in which the film-maker literally lifts away the screen off 
which the original is being "copied," and we are confronted with the 
flicker of the bare projector bulb behind the screen. 

In the third version an even more aggressive passage shows an image 
jumping in the projector gate to the point of indecipherability by vertical 



distortion. Audiences seeing this for the first time do not know if the pro- 
jectionist has misthreaded or if what they are seeing is part of the film 
itself. He has thus incorporated within the film an aggressive factor similar 
to the use of the two radios in Blonde Cobra. As the jumping continues 
(and it continues for a very long time, seeming as if it were about to rectify 
itself only to jump again) it becomes evident that the strategy is deliberate. 

To the film-maker himself, Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son — a filmed nurs- 
ery rhyme — is an exercise in "folded" temporality, and an attempt to re- 
cover an innocence in the childhood of the medium itself: 

Ghosts! Cine-recordings of the vivacious doings of persons 
long dead. The preservation of their memory ceases at the edges 
of the frame (a 1905 hand happened to stick into the frame . . . 
it's preserved, recorded in a spray of emulsion grains). One face 
passes "behind" another on the two-dimensional screen. 

The staging and cutting is pre-Griffith. Seven infinitely com- 
plex cinetapestries comprise the original film, and the style is not 
primitive, not uncinematic but the cleanest, inspired indication 
of a path of cinematic development whose value has only re- 
cently been rediscovered. My camera closes in, only to better as- 
certain the infinite richness (playing with fate, taking advantage 
of the loop-character of all movies, recalling with variations 
some visual complexes again and again for particular savoring), 
searching out incongruities in the story-telling (a person, con- 
fused, suddenly looks out of an actor's face), delighting in the 
whole bizarre human phenomena of story-telling itself and this 
within the fantasy of reading any bygone time out of the visual 
crudities of film: dream within a dream! 

And then I wanted to show the actual present of film, just 
begin to indicate its energy. A train of images passes like enough 
and different enough to imply to the mind that its eyes are see- 
ing an arm lift, or a door close; I wanted to "bring to the sur- 
face" that multi-rhythmic collision-contesting of dark and light 
two-dimensional force-areas struggling edge to edge for identity 
of shape ... to get into the amoebic grain pattern itself — a 
chemical dispersion pattern unique to each frame, each cold still 
. . . stirred to life by a successive 16-24 f.p.s. patterning on our 
retinas, the teeming energies elicited (the grains! the grains!) then 
collaborating, unknowingly and ironically, to form the always 
poignant-because-always-past illusion. 24 

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tructural Film 


development in the American avant-garde 
cinema since the trend toward mythopoeic 
forms in the early 1960s was the emer- 
gence and development of what I have 
called the structural film. 1 The pattern 
which operated within the work of Maya 
Deren was echoed, as I have shown, in the 
entire thrust of the American avant-garde 
cinema between the late forties and the mid- 
sixties; on the simplest level it was a 
movement toward increased cinematic 
complexity. Film-makers such as Gregory 
Markopoulos, Sidney Peterson, Kenneth 
Anger, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka, 
to name a few of the most conspicuous, 
moved toward more condensed and more 
complex forms. 

Since the mid-sixties a number of film- 
makers have emerged whose approach is 
quite different, although dialectically re- 
lated to the sensibility of their predeces- 
sors. Michael Snow, George Landow, Hol- 
lis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, 
Ernie Gehr, and Joyce Weiland have pro- 
duced a number of remarkable films ap- 
parently in the opposite direction of that 


formal thrust. Theirs is a cinema of structure in which the shape of the 
whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is 
the primal impression of the film. 

The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is 
minimal and subsidiary to the outline. Four characteristics of the structural 
film are its fixed camera position (fixed frame from the viewer's perspec- 
tive), the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen. 
Very seldom will one find all four characteristics in a single film, and there 
are structural films which modify these usual elements. 

What then would be the difference between the lyrical film I have 
described and the structural film? What would be their relationship? The 
lyrical film too replaces the mediator with the increased presence of the 
camera. We see what the film-maker sees; the reactions of the camera and 
the montage reveal his responses to his vision. In the opening sequence of 
Hammid and Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, we found the roots of first- 
person cinematic consciousness. They filmed the first approach and explo- 
ration of the house from the point of view of the puzzled participant. But 
they immediately qualified — or mediated — that forceful opening by show- 
ing the figure of the protagonist in subsequent variations. In creating the 
lyrical film, Stan Brakhage accepted the limitations of that opening se- 
quence as the basis for a new form. Out of the optical field and metaphors 
of the body's movement in the rocking gestures of the camera, he affirmed 
the film-maker as the lyrical first person. Without that achievement and 
its subsequent evolution, it would be difficult to imagine the flourishing of 
the structural film. 

The four techniques are the more obvious among many subtle changes 
from the lyrical film in an attempt to divorce the cinematic metaphor of 
consciousness from that of eyesight and body movement, or at least to 
diminish these categories from the predominance they have in Brakhage's 
films and theory. In Brakhage's art, perception is a special condition of 
vision, most often represented as an interruption of the retinal continuity 
(e.g., the white flashes of the early lyric films, the conclusion of Dog Star 
Man). In the structural cinema, however, apperceptive strategies come to 
the fore. It is cinema of the mind rather than the eye. It might at first seem 
that the most significant precursor of the structural film was Brakhage. But 
that is inaccurate. The achievements of Kubelka and Breer and before them 
the early masters of the graphic film did as much to inform this develop- 
ment. The structural film is in part a synthesis of the formalistic graphic 
film and the Romantic lyrical film. But this description is historically in- 

By the mid-1960s the contributions of the lyrical and graphic cinema 
had been totally assimilated into avant-garde film-making. They were part 
of the vocabulary a young film-maker acquired at the screenings of the 
Film-Makers' Cinematheque or the Canyon Cinema Cooperative. They 
were in the air. The new film-makers were not responding to these forms 



dialectically, because they situated themselves within them, no matter 
which films they preferred and which they rejected. 

The major precursor of the structural film was not Brakhage, or Ku- 
belka, or Breer. He was Andy Warhol. Warhol came to the avant-garde 
cinema in a way no one else had. He was at the height of his success in 
the most lucrative of American arts — painting. He was a fully developed 
artist in one medium, and he entered another, not as a dabbler, but with 
a total commitment. He immediately began to produce major cinema. For 
years he sustained that production with undiminished intensity, creating 
in that time as many major films as any of his contemporaries had in a 
lifetime; then, after completing The Chelsea Girls (1966), he quickly faded 
as a significant film-maker. 

Warhol began to take an interest in the avant-garde film in 1963 when 
it was at the height of the mythic stage. He quickly made himself familiar 
with the latest works of Brakhage, Markopoulos, Anger, and especially 
Jack Smith, who had a direct influence on him. On one level at least — 
and that is the only level of importance to us — Warhol turned his genius 
for parody and reduction against the American avant-garde film itself. The 
first film that he seriously engaged himself in was a monumental inversion 
of the dream tradition within the avant-garde film. His Sleep was no trance 
film or mythic dream but six hours of a man sleeping. (It was to have been 
eight hours long, but something went wrong.) At the same time, he ex- 
ploded the myth of compression and the myth of the film-maker. Theorists 
such as Brakhage and Kubelka expounded the law that a film must not 
waste a frame and that a single film-maker must control all the functions 
of the creation. Warhol made the profligacy of footage the central fact of 
all of his early films, and he advertised his indifference to direction, pho- 
tography, and lighting. He simply turned the camera on and walked away. 
In short, the set of concerns which I have associated with the Romantic 
heritage of the American avant-garde film were the object of Warhol's 
fierce indifference. 

Stephen Koch has something to say on this subject: 

The Duchampian game in which objects are aestheticized 
merely by turning to them with a certain glint in your eye does 
have continuing value, though not as the comical anti-art po- 
lemic so often ascribed to it . . . 

It is possible to understand this rather specialized aesthetic 
experience as a metaphor, in consciousness, for the perception 
of things at large, in which the unlike things compared and 
fused are the self and the world. ... It is a major modernist pro- 
cedure for creating metaphors, and an antiromantic one, since it 
locates the world of art's richness not in Baudelaire's "Else- 
where" but in the here and now. At least almost. 



Warhol goes further. He wants to be transformed into an 
object himself, quite explicitly wants to remove himself from the 
dangerous, anxiety-ridden world of human action and interac- 
tion, to wrap himself in the serene fullness of the functionless 
aesthetic sphere. 2 

Warhol defines his art "anti-romantically." Pop art, especially as he 
practiced it, was a repudiation of the processes, theories, and myths of 
Abstract Expressionism, a Romantic school. Warhol's earliest films showed 
how similar most other avant-garde films were and, to those looking 
closely, how Romantic. Yet whether or not the anti-Romantic stance can 
escape the dialectics of Romanticism is an open question. Koch seems to 
think it cannot: 

Transforming himself into the object celebrity, Warhol has made 
a commitment to the Baudelairean "resolution not to be moved" — 
an effort to ensconce himself in the aesthetic realm's transparent 
placenta, removed from the violence and emotions of the 
world's time and space. So Warhol turns out to be a romantic 
after all. 3 

The roots of three of the four defining characteristics of the structural 
film can be found in Warhol's early works. He made famous the fixed- 
frame in Sleep (1963), in which a half dozen shots are seen for over six 
hours. In order to attain that elongation, he used both loop printing of 
whole one-hundred-foot takes (23/4 minutes) and, in the end, the freezing 
of a still image of the sleeper's head. That freeze process emphasizes the 
grain and flattens the image precisely as rephotography off the screen does. 
The films he made immediately afterwards cling even more fiercely to the 
single unbudging perspective: Eat (1963), forty-five minutes of the eating 
of a mushroom; Empire (1964), eight continuous hours of the Empire State 
Building through the night into dawn; Harlot (1965), a seventy-minute 
tableau vivant with offscreen commentary; Beauty #2 (1965), a bed scene 
with off- and on-screen speakers lasting seventy minutes. Soon afterwards, 
he developed the fixed-tripod technique of reconciling stasis to camera 
movement. In Poor Little Rich Girl: Party Sequence (1965), Hedy (1966), 
and The Chelsea Girls (1966) he utilized camera movements, especially 
the zoom, from the pivot of an unmoving tripod without stopping the 
camera until the long roll had run out. Yet Warhol as a pop artist is 
spiritually at the opposite pole from the structural film-makers. His fixed 
camera was at first an outrage, later an irony, until the content of his films 
became so compelling to him that he abandoned the fixed camera for a 
species of in-the-camera editing. In the work of Michael Snow and Ernie 
Gehr, the camera is fixed in a mystical contemplation of a portion of space. 
Spiritually the distance between these poles cannot be reconciled. 



In his close analysis of Warhol's early work, Koch views these films 
with the kind of intensity and perspective that the structural film-makers 
brought to them. He sees in them the framework of an apperceptive cin- 
ema. In the end of Haircut (1963), in which someone in a barber's chair, 
after a long stare into the camera, breaks into unheard laughter as the final 
roll of film flares up in whiteness, he sees "the cinematic drama of the 
gaze, reaching its final and reflexive development": 

The moment is a gently felt turn of self-consciousness suggesting 
the gentlest of put-ons — a put-on not in the sense of artistic 
fraud but that implied by a kind of Prosperolike cadenza (if I 
may compare great to small), a breaking of the spell. With it we 
realize that, like all the other early films, Haircut is about the 
hypnotic nature of the gaze itself, about the power of the artist 
over it. 4 

Koch sees that beyond the obvious aggressions and ironies of the early 
Warhol films — and perhaps because of them — there is a conscious ontol- 
ogy of the viewing experience. What the critic does not say is that these 
apperceptive mechanisms are latent or passive in Warhol's work. To the 
film-makers who first encountered these films the mid-sixties (those who 
were not threatened by them), these latent mechanisms must have sug- 
gested other conscious and deliberate extensions: that is, Warhol must have 
inspired, by opening up and leaving unclaimed so much ontological ter- 
ritory, a cinema actively engaged in generating metaphors for the viewing 
or rather the perceiving, experience. 

Thus the structural film is not simply an outgrowth of the lyric. It is 
an attempt to answer Warhol's attack by converting his tactics into the 
tropes of the response. To the catalogue of the spatial strategies of the 
structural film must be added the temporal gift from Warhol — duration. 
He was the first film-maker to try to make films which would outlast a 
viewer's initial state of perception. By sheer dint of waiting, the persistent 
viewer would alter his experience before the sameness of the cinematic 
image. Brakhage had made a very long film in The Art of Vision, but he 
was apologetic about its four hours; it had to be that long and not a minute 
longer, he would claim, to say what it had to say. Ken Jacobs had been 
bolder or more honest in describing the endless and perpetually disinte- 
grating experience of his projected Star Spangled to Death. But that too 
would have been a perversely orchestrated experience from beginning to 

Warhol broke the most severe theoretical taboo when he made films 
that challenged the viewer's ability to endure emptiness or sameness. He 
even insisted that each silent film be shown at 16 frames per second al- 
though it was shot at 24. The duration of his films was one of slightly 
slowed motion. The great challenge, then, of the structural film became 


how to orchestrate duration; how to permit the wandering attention that 
triggered ontological awareness while watching Warhol films and at the 
same time guide that awareness to a goal. 

Not all of the structural films respond to the severe challenges of their 
form. Those instances of structural cinema in the filmgraphies of men who 
had worked successfully in other modes tend to use the frozen camera, 
loop printing, the flicker effect, and rephotography to open up new di- 
mensions within the range of concerns that they pre-established in their 
earlier works. 

Just why, at approximately the same time, Stan Brakhage, Gregory 
Markopoulos, Bruce Baillie, and Ken Jacobs began to extend their art in 
this direction is difficult to determine. Warhol's sudden shock-blow to the 
aesthetics of the avant-garde film was a factor, just as it was to film-makers 
like Michael Snow, Paul Sharks, George Landow and Hollis Frampton 
whose work largely lies within the domain of the structural film. 

Michael Snow, the dean of structural film-makers, utilizes the tension 
of the fixed frame and some of the flexibility of the fixed tripod in Wave- 
length. Actually it is a forward zoom for forty-five minutes, halting oc- 
casionally, and fixed during several different times so that day changes to 
night within the motion. 

A persistent polarity shapes the film. Throughout there is an explo- 
ration of the room, a long studio, as a field of space, subject to the arbi- 
trary events of the outside world so long as the zoom is recessive enough 
to see the windows and thereby the street. The room gradually closes up 
its space (during the day, at night, on different film stocks for color tone, 
with filters, and even occasionally in negative) as the zoom nears the back 
wall and the final image of a photograph upon it — a photograph of waves. 
This is the story of the diminishing area of pure potentiality. The insight 
that space, and cinema by implication, is potential is an axiom of the 
structural film. 

In a note for the fourth International Experimental Film Competition 
where it won first prize, Snow described the film: 

Wavelength was shot in one week Dec. '66 preceded by a 
year of notes, thots, mutterings. It was edited and first print seen 
in May '67. I wanted to make a summation of my nervous sys- 
tem, religious inklings, and aesthetic ideas. I was thinking of 
planning for a time monument in which the beauty and sadness 
of equivalence would be celebrated, thinking of trying to make a 
definitive statement of pure Film space and time, a balancing of 
"illusion" and "fact," all about seeing. The space starts at the 
camera's (spectator's) eye, is in the air, then is on the screen, 
then is within the screen (the mind). 

The film is a continuous zoom which takes 45 minutes to go 
from its widest field to its smallest and final field. It was shot 



with a fixed camera from one end of an 80 foot loft, shooting 
the other end, a row of windows and the street. This, the set- 
ting, and the action which takes place there are cosmically 
equivalent. The room (and the zoom) are interrupted by 4 hu- 
man events including a death. The sound on these occasions is 
sync sound, music and speech, occurring simultaneously with an 
electronic sound, a sine wave, which goes from its lowest (50 
cycles per second) note to its highest (12000 c.p.s.) in 40 
minutes. It is a total glissando while the film is a crescendo and 
a dispersed spectrum which attempts to utilize the gifts of both 
prophecy and memory which only film and music have to offer. 5 

He simplified the essential ambiguity in the film by describing one of 
the events as a death. The order of the actions is progressive and interre- 
lated: a woman supervises the moving in of a bookcase; later she returns 
with another woman; they listen to the radio (a few phrases from "Straw- 
berry Fields," pop culture's version of ontological skepticism) without talk- 
ing; so far we are early in the film, the action appears random; midway 
through, a man breaks glass (heard offscreen) to get in an unseen door 
and climb the stairs (so we hear); he enters the studio and collapses on 
the floor, but the lens has already crossed half the room, and he is only 
glimpsed; the image passes over him. Late in the film, a woman returns, 
goes to the telephone, which, being at the far wall, is in full view, and in 
a dramatic moment which brings the previous events of the film into a 
narrative nexus, calls a man, "Richard," to tell him there is a dead body 
in the room. She insists that the man does not look drunk, but dead, and 
she says she will wait downstairs. She leaves. 

Had the film ended at that point, the image of death would have 
satisfied all the potential energy and anticipation built up through the film. 
But Snow prefers a deeper vision. We see a visual echo, a ghost image in 
black-and-white superimposition of discontinuous flashes of the woman 
entering, turning toward the body, telephoning, and leaving. Then the 
zoom continues, as the sound grows shriller, into the final image of the 
static sea pinned to the wall, a cumulative metaphor for the whole expe- 
rience of the dimensional illusion in open space. 

The events of Wavelength occur first as discrete actions or irreducible 
performances. But the pivotal telephone call bridges the space between 
their self-enclosure and the narrative. Snow exposes his cinematic materials 
in Wavelength (even more so in his later film, whose title is the mark <->) 
as momentary states within the work. The splice marks, flares of light, 
filters, different film stocks, and the focal interests of the room (the yellow 
chair against the far wall especially) create a calculus of mental and phys- 
ical states, as distinguished from human events, which are as much a part 
of the body of the film as the actions I have dwelt upon. Things happen 
in the room of Wavelength, and things happen to the film of the room. 



Three strips from Michael Snow's Wavelength. 

The convergence of the two kinds of happening and their subsequent meta- 
morphosis create for the viewer a continually changing experience of cin- 
ematic illusion and anti-illusion. 

Annette Michelson finds this film a metaphor for consciousness itself. 
Her eloquent paraphrase reveals its relation to phenomenology: 

We are proceeding from uncertainly to certainty, as our camera 
narrows its field, arousing and then resolving our tension of 
puzzlement as to its ultimate destination, describing in the splen- 
did purity of its one, slow movement, the notion of the "hori- 
zon" characteristic of every subjective process and fundamental 
as a trait of intentionality. That steady movement forward, with 
its superimposition, its events passing into the field from behind 
the camera and back again beyond it, figures the view that "to 
every perception there always belongs a horizon of the past, as a 
potentially of recollections that can be awakened; and to every 
recollection there belongs as an horizon, the continuous inter- 
vening intentionality of possible recollections (to be actualized 



on my initiative, actively up to the actual Now of perception." 
[Husserl, Cartesian Meditations] And as the camera continues to 
move steadily forward, building a tension that grows in direct 
ratio to the reduction of the field, we recognize, with some sur- 
prise, those horizons as defining the contours of narrative, of the 
narrative form animated by distended temporality, turning upon 
cognition towards revelation. 6 

The very unsteadiness of the forward movement and its perceptible 
tiny jolts forward confirm Michelson's analysis. One of Snow's most in- 
teresting tactics is the superimposition of the forthcoming, slightly forward 
position on the one we are looking at, giving us for the length of that 
superimposition a static image of the temporal process. Its most effective 
employment is at the very end of the film when, after a long-held wide 
shot, the photograph of the waves, surrounded by a border of the wall to 
which it is pinned, suddenly shares its screen space with a view within the 
photograph. We anticipate, and when the older layer dissolves we expe- 
rience, the illusory depth of the receding line of sight extending over the 
static sea. 

The structural film — and Wavelength may be the supreme achievement 
of the form — has the same relationship to the earlier forms of the avant- 
garde film that Symbolism had to its source, Romanticism. The rhetoric 
of inspiration has changed to the language of aesthetics; Promethean her- 
oism collapses into a consciousness of the self in which its very represen- 
tation becomes problematic; the quest for a redeemed innocence becomes 
a search for the purity of images and the trapping of time. All this is as 
true of structural cinema as it is of Symbolism. 

For Snow, making a film is a matter of "stating the issues about film." 
In an interview he said: 

I thought that maybe the issues hadn't really been stated clearly 
about film in the same sort of way — now this is presumptuous, 
but to say — in the way Cezanne, say, made a balance between 
the colored goo that he used, which is what you see if you look 
at it that way, and the forms that you see in illusionary space. 
... I was trying to do something very pure and about the kinds 
of realities involved. 7 

And in a letter following up the interview he added: 

I mentioned Cezanne in a comment about the illusion/reality 
balance in art in painting. Tho many other painters have 
worked out their own beautiful solutions to this "problem," I 
think his was the greatest and is relevant because his work is 
representational. The complicated involvement of his perception 
of exterior reality, his creation of a work which both represents 

35 6 


and is something, thus his balance of mind and matter, his re- 
spect for a lot of levels are exemplary to me. My work is repre- 
sentational. It is not very Cezannesque tho. Wavelength and <-> 
are much more Vermeer (I hope). 8 

Snow's direct confrontation with aesthetic endurance was One Second 
in Montreal (1969), where more than thirty still photographs of snow- 
covered parks are held on the screen for very long periods. The shape of 
the film is a crescendo-diminuendo of duration — although the first shot is 
held very long, the second stays even longer, and so on into the middle of 
the film, after which the measures begin to shorten. 

One Second in Montreal is one of several structural films that encroach 
upon the domain of the graphic cinema. It can be said that Wavelength 
bridges the distance between the subjective and the graphic poles by zoom- 
ing the depth of the loft into the flatwork of the photograph. In One 
Second in Montreal Snow inverted the micro-rhythmic preoccupations of 
Kubelka and Breer by organizing his film around temporal differences that 
are barely perceptible because the attention of the viewer is permitted to 
wander and to change during the long holds. 

In <-> (1969) and The Central Region (1971) the film-maker elaborated 
on the metaphor of the moving camera as an imitation of consciousness. 
The central fact of <-> is velocity. The camera perpetually moving, left- 
right, right-left, passes a number of "events" which becomes metaphors in 
the flesh for the back-and-forth inflection of the camera. Each activity is 
a rhythmic unit, self-enclosed, and joined to the subsequent activity only 
by the fact that they occur in the same space. They provide a living scale 
for the speeds of camera movement, and they provide solid forms in the 
field of energy that the panning makes out of space. 

The overt rhythm of <-> depends upon the speed at which the camera 
scans from side to side or up and down. Likewise, the overt drama of 
Wavelength derives from the closing-in of space, the action of the zoom 
lens. The specific content of both films is empty space or rooms. It is the 
nature and structure of the events within the rooms which differentiate the 
modes of the films. 

In the letter quoted earlier, Snow described <->, which he was com- 
pleting at the time: 

As a move from the implications of Wavelength <-» attempts to 
transcend through motion more than light. There will be less 
paradox and in a way less drama than in the other films. It is 
more "concrete" and more objective. <-> is sculptural. It is also a 
kind of demonstration or lesson in perception and in concepts of 
law and order and their transcendence. It is in/of/depicts a class- 
room. I think it will be seen to present a different, possibly new, 
spectator-image relationship. My films are (to me) attempts to 
suggest the mind to a certain state or certain states of conscious- 



ness. They are drug relatives in that respect. <-> will be less com- 
ment and dream than the others. You aren't within it, it isn't 
within you, you're beside it. <-> is sculptural because the de- 
picted light is to be outside, around the solid (wall) which be- 
comes transcended/spiritualized by motion-time whereas in 
Wavelength it is more transcended by light-time. 9 

In the film the camera pans back and forth outside a schoolroom while 
a janitor crosses, sweeping, from right to left. The remainder of the film, 
which is fifty minutes long, takes place within that room. For the first 
thirty-five minutes the camera repeatedly sweeps past events or "opera- 
tions," to use the vocabulary of contemporary dance, usually separated 
from each other by passages of panning the empty room: a woman reads 
by the window, a class takes place in which the title symbol appears on 
the blackboard, a couple pass a ball, the janitor sweeps the floor, two men 
playfully fight, someone washes the window from outside, and a policeman 
looks in. The speed of the moving camera varies in relation to each event, 
sometimes to underline and sometimes to obscure the rhythm and axis of 
the activity; furthermore actors enter either by the door or suddenly appear 
and disappear through editing. 

Midway through the film the event series ends. The camera accelerates, 
blurring the objects of the room, until the depth of space, which had been 
significantly asymmetrical — the camera being nearer one wall than the 
other — flattens into the two-dimensional. At the point of maximal speed 
the direction changes to the vertical and gradually slows to a stop. The 
film seems to have ended; the credits appear. Then the substance of the 
film is recapitulated in a coda. 

The incessant panning of the camera creates an apparent time in con- 
flict with the time of any given operation. In the film's coda, which is a 
recapitulation of all the events out of their initial order and in multiple 
superimposition, the illusions of temporal integrity dissolve in an image of 
atemporal rhythmic counterpoint as all the directions and parts of the film 
appear simultaneously. 

In the letter I have quoted, Snow wrote: "If Wavelength is metaphysics, 
Eye and Ear Control is philosophy and <-> will be physics." Later he ex- 
plained what he meant by these analogies. For him New York Eye and 
Ear Control analyzes modes of action, philosophy being a curriculum ex- 
tending from ethics to logic, but excluding metaphysics (for Snow, the 
religious and perceptive dimension and the locus of paradoxes) which is 
the specific domain of Wavelength . Michelson's brilliant analysis of the 
film does not account for its transcendental aura, which emerges, I believe, 
from the tension between the intentionality of the movement forward and 
the superhuman, invisible fixity of the tripod from which it pivots. That 
tension is in turn reflected and intensified by the corresponding opposition 
of the natural sounds to the electronic crescendo. And that tension cli- 
maxes in the final eerie plunge from the flat wall into the illusionary depth 



of the motionless seascape. Snow writes that he placed his camera and 
tripod on a pedestal to get a view of the street beyond the window, and 
he "discovered the high angle to have lyric God-like above-it-all quality." 

The nearly mechanical scanning movement of <-> (he experimented 
with a machine that could swing the camera back and forth) takes a mod- 
ule of human perception and moves it in the direction of physical law, 
which denies to the human events it scans the internal cohesion of nar- 
rative, so that they in turn withhold from the camera the privilege of a 
fictive or transcendental perspective. Thus the film-maker compares the 
manifold to physics, or he can say, "You aren't within it; it isn't within 
you; you're beside it." Yet that does not exclude the possibility of an in- 
ternal development within the film itself. In a text on The Central Region, 
he repeats and expounds his analogies: 

I've said before, and perhaps I can quote myself, "New York 
Eye and Ear Control is philosophy, Wavelength is metaphysics 
and <-> is physics." By the last I mean the conversation of mat- 
ter into energy. E=mc 2 . La Region continues this but it becomes 
simultaneous micro and macro, cosmic-planetary as well as 
atomic. Totality is achieved in terms of cycles rather than action 
and reaction. It's above that. 10 

I take the analogy of "the conversation of mass into energy" to be a 
description of the climax of <-> when the acceleration of the camera allows 
for a transition from the horizontal to the vertical and ultimately for si- 
multaneous spaces and events in the superimposed coda. 

The Central Region reconciles the structural metaphors of Wavelength 
and <-K The central region of the title is a nearly barren plateau, void of 
people or any signs of their existence, and this region is also the sky above 
it, which the camera sweeps in 360-degree circles, explores in expanding 
or contracting spirals, and crosses in zig-zagging pans, focusing on the 
ground around its base in flowing close-ups and the distant horizon in 
zooming telephoto shots; but it is also the invisible spherical space which 
the camera, despite its ingenious equatorial mount which can mechanically 
perform more motions than the subtlest of film-makers holding his camera 
by hand, cannot see because it is itself. The whole visible scene, the hemi- 
sphere of the sky and the ground extending from the camera mount (whose 
shadow is visible) to the horizon, becomes the inner circumference of a 
sphere whose center is the other central region: the camera and the space 
of its "self." Nothing the camera passes acknowledges its existence, how- 
ever tangentially; yet the film as a whole metaphorically describes the Ro- 
mantic estrangement from nature; all of its baroque motions vainly seek 
an image in the visible central region that will illuminate the invisible one. 

Curiously, this very unique film recapitulates the quests of two very 
different film-makers, Stan Brakhage and Jordan Belson. In its imagery 
and in its dynamics, The Central Region looks back upon Anticipation of 


the Night, in which Brakhage's shadow self becomes the shadow of the 
camera mount. His exploration there through the moving camera of the 
child's awakening consciousness has its corollary in the opening spiral of 
Snow's film, where the space which the viewer must study for the next 
three hours gradually discloses itself as the image feels its way from close, 
out-of-focus ground to horizon. Their imagery coincides in visions of 
"moonplay"; the camera movement in both films makes the moon dance 
in the night sky. Brakhage ends with a defeating dawn; Snow includes a 
beautiful aube in the middle of his film. In many ways it is the most 
spectacular of the sixteen different sections, which vary from about three 
minutes to a half hour in length and are clearly punctuated by a glowing 
yellow X against a black screen. In the dawn scene, the slowly seeping 
light very gradually clarifies the landscape and at the same time allows us 
to perceive the camera movements. Brakhage's probing camera, unlike 
Snow's, is completely humanized. Its irregularities of movement are indices 
of the fictional self behind it. In its disembodied perspective the motion of 
The Central Region recalls that of Samadhi or World. 

The crucial issue that separates Snow's disembodied viewpoint from 
Belson's is, of course, illusionist. Snow always incorporated an appercep- 
tive acknowledgment of the cinematic materials and circumstances in his 
film. In the article on The Central Region he wrote: 

Most of my films accept the traditional theater situation. 
Audience here, screen there. It makes concentration and contem- 
plation possible. We're two sided and we fold. . . . The single 
rectangle can contain a lot. In Region the frame is very impor- 
tant as the image is continually flowing through it. The frame is 
eyelids. It can seem sad that in order to exist a form must have 
bounds, limits, set, and setting. The rectangle's content can be 
precisely that. In La Region Centrale the frame emphasizes the 
cosmic continuity which is beautiful, but tragic: it just goes on 
without us. 11 

Belson's art seduces us away from the immediacy of the materials — the 
rectangular screen, the tripod, the focusing lenses — into an illusionary par- 
ticipation, while Snow's transcendentalism is always grounded in a dia- 
logue between illusion and its unveiling. 

The metaphysical culmination of Wavelength had been the moment of 
breaking through the photographic surface; the "physical" turning point 
of <-> was the conversion of space into sheer motion. A similar conversion 
occurs in the last section of The Central Region. The camera circles so 
quickly that the motion is no longer read as camera movement and the 
landscape itself seems to fly. As the speed accelerates, the earth it photo- 
graphs forms a spinning ball until the last image of the film defines the 
central region as a planet in space, recalling the same metaphor for con- 
sciousness in most of Belson's work. 



Paul Sharits's films are devoid of mystical or cosmological imagery, 
but they aspire to induce changes of consciousness in their viewers. 12 Writ- 
ing about his most successful flicker film, n:0:T:h:i:n:G (1968), he uses 
the language of Tibetan Buddhism: 

The film will strip away anything (all present definitions of 
"something") standing in the way of the film being its own real- 
ity, anything which would prevent the viewer from entering to- 
tally new levels of awareness. The theme of the work, if it can 
be called a theme, is to deal with the non-understandable, the 
impossible, in a tightly and precisely structured way. The film 
will not "mean" something — it will "mean," in a very concrete 
way, nothing. 

The film focuses and concentrates on two images and their 
highly linear but illogical and/or inverted development. The ma- 
jor image is that of a lightbulb which first retracts its light rays; 
upon retracting its light, the bulb becomes black and, impossi- 
bly, lights up the space around it. The bulb emits one burst of 
black light and begins melting; at the end of the film the bulb is 
a black puddle at the bottom of the screen. The other image 
(notice that the film is composed, on all levels, of dualities) is 
that of a chair, seen against a graph-like background, falling 
backwards onto the floor (actually, it falls against and affirms 
the edge of the picture frame); this image sequence occurs in the 
center, "thig le" section of n:0:T:H:i:n:G. The mass of the film 
is highly vibratory color-energy rhythms; the color development 
is partially based on the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani 
Buddhas which is used meditation to reach the highest level of 
inner consciousness — infinite, transcendental wisdom (symbol- 
ized by Vairocana being embraced by the Divine Mother of Infi- 
nite Blue Space). This formal-psychological composition moves 
progressively into more intense vibration (through the symbolic 
colors white, yellow, red and green) until the center of the man- 
dala is reached (the center being the "thig le" or void point, 
containing all forms, both the beginning and end of conscious- 
ness). The second half of the film is, in a sense, the inverse of 
the first; that is, after one has passed through the center of the 
void, he may return to a normative state retaining the richness 
of the revelatory "thig le" experience. The virtual shapes I have 
been working with (created by rapid alternations and patterns of 
blank color frames) are quite relevant in this work as is indi- 
cated by this passage from the Svetasvatara Upanishad: "As you 
practice meditation, you may see in vision forms, resembling 
snow, crystal, smoke, fire, lightning, fireflies, the sun, the moon. 
These are signs that you are on your way to the revelation of 


3 6l 

I am not at all interested in the mystical symbolism of Bud- 
dhism, only in its strong, intuitively developed imagistic power. 
In a sense, I am more interested in the mantra because unlike 
the mandala and yantra forms which are full of such symbols, 
the mantra is often nearly pure nonsense — yet it has intense po- 
tency psychologically, aesthetically and physiologically. The 
mantra used upon reaching the "thig le" of the Mandala of the 
Five Dhyani Buddhas is the simple "Om" — a steady vibrational 
hum. I've tried to compose the center of n:0:T:h:i:n:G, on one 
level, to visualize this auditory effect. 13 

Kubelka has posited Arnulf Rainer as the absolute pole of "strong 
articulations," the split-second collision of opposites, black and white, si- 
lence and white sound. In The Flicker, Tony Conrad extended that tech- 
nique to an area of meditative cinema by orchestrating smooth transitions 
between white dominance and black dominance and by keeping his pierc- 
ing soundtrack at an even level. Lacking the internal modulation of Arnulf 
Rainer, The Flicker uses the aggressive speed of the flicker effect to suggest 
a revelatory stasis or very gradual change. 

When Paul Sharits made the first color flickers — Ray Gun Virus (1966) 
and Piece Mandala/End War (1966) — he further softened the inherent 
strong articulations. Pure colors when rapidly flashed one after the other 
tend to blend, pale, and veer toward whiteness. By the time he made 
N:0:T:H:I:n:G he had learned how to control these apparent shifts and to 
group his color bursts into major and minor phrases with, say, a pale blue 
dominant at one time, a yellow dominant at another. From the very be- 
ginning the screen flashes clusters of color, while the sound suggests a 
telegraphic code, chattering teeth, or the plastic click of suddenly changing 
television channels. 

In the middle of the chain of color changes he shows us an image 
interlude of a chair animated in positive and negative. It floats down the 
screen, away into nothing, or the near nothing of the mutually effacing 
colors. The interlude is marked by the sound of a telephone. From early 
on, the film is continually interrupted for short periods by the two- 
dimensional image of a light bulb dripping its vital light fluid. 

Sharits molds the viewer's attention and punctuates it by incorporating 
into his seemingly circular flicker films (the mandala is his chosen shape) 
linear signs for determining how much of the film's time has expired, how 
much is yet to come. The dripping bulb is one such clock; we anticipate 
that the film will end when it does. Ken Jacobs shows us the original Tom, 
Tom, the Viper's Son first so that we can gauge the development of his 
variations, only to trick us at the end, as Nelson does when he lies about 
the time of Bleu Shut. Sharits, however, seems to be interested in main- 
taining the purity of the relation between the duration of his films and the 
internal expectations and milestones they generate. 



In t,o,u,c,h,i,n,g (1968) he spells the title out, letter by letter, be- 
ginning with the T and ending the film with the G. Here still images begin 
to assume equal weight with the color flicker. Single-frame shots of a shirt- 
less young man flash in positive and negative, both color and black-and- 
white. In some of the shots he holds his tongue in a scissors as if about to 
cut it off; in others a woman's fingernails are scratching his face. Two 
different stills of the scratching, in quick succession, test the spectator's 
tendency to elide them into an illusion of movement. Mixed with these 
icons of violence are a photograph of an operation in color and a close- 
up of genitals in intercourse in black-and-white. All through the film the 
word "destroy" is repeated by a male voice in a loop. Eventually the ear 
refuses to register it, and it begins to sound like other words. 

He makes similar use of the word "exochorion" in his subsequent film 
S:Tream:S:S:ection:S:ection:S:S:ectioned (1970), this time spoken fu- 
gally with similar words by female voices. On the screen we see, for the 
first time in a Sharits film, a moving image — flowing water. 

While the cycles of water current decrease three times in layers of 
superimposition from six to one, the number of vertical scratches on the 
film steadily increases in increments of three. The viewer clocks the film 
in relation to his expectation that when there is no more room for three 
additional scratches the film will end. 

The multiple superimposition of water flowing in different directions 
initially presents a very flat image. But the subsequent scratches, which are 
deep, ripping through the color emulsion to the pure white of the film base 
and often ploughing up a visual residue of filmic matter at the edges, affirm 
a literal flatness which makes the water appear to occupy deep space by 

The dilemma of Sharits's art has turned on the failure of his imagery 
to sustain its authority in the very powerful matrix of the structures he 
provides. His search for metaphors and icons for the particular kind of 
cinematic experience that his films engender has not been as successful as 
his invention of markers to reflect the duration of his films. In 
n:0:T:h:i:n:G the off-balance, empty chair and the draining light bulb 
allude to the floating, almost intoxicating experience the seated viewer feels 
after extended concentration on flickering colors, pouring from the pro- 
jector bulb. The metaphors of t,o,u,c,h,i,n,g totalize the suicidal and 
sexual inserts of Ray Gun Virus and Piece Mandala/End War and represent 
the viewing experience as erotic violence. Curiously in s:s:s:s:s:s he repre- 
sents, unwittingly of course, the metaphor Kubelka is so fond of elabo- 
rating for the structure of Scbwechater; in his lectures he always compares 
that film to the flowing of a stream. In Sharits's film too, the complexly 
deflected water flows are like the illusory movement of cinema. However, 
these metaphors either lack the immediacy of the color flickers or the 
scratches around them, or they overpower their matrix, as in 
t,o,u,c,h,i,n,g, and instigate a psychological vector which the form can- 

Flicker and sparagmos: Paul Sharits's t,o,v,c,h,i,n,g. 



not accommodate as satisfactorily as the trance film or the mythopoeic 

It is precisely such a gift for finding the apperceptive trope that distin- 
guishes George Landow's films. His first film, Fleming Faloon (1963), is a 
precursor of the structural tendency. The technique of direct address is at 
the center of its construction. The film begins with two amateurs reciting 
"Around the world in eighty minutes"; then it contains jump-cuts of a TV 
newscaster and image upon image of a staring face, sometimes full screen, 
sometimes as the object of a dollying camera with the face superimposed 
upon itself. At other times the film splits into four images (unsplit 8mm 
photography in which two sets of two consecutive images appear in the 
16mm frame). Televisions, mirrored televisions, and superimposed movies 
are interspersed. 

In Film in which there appear sprocket holes, edge lettering, dirt par- 
ticles, etc. (1966), he derived his image from a commercial test film, orig- 
inally nothing more than a woman staring at the camera, in which a blink 
of her eye is the only motion, with a spectrum of colors beside her. Landow 
had the image reprinted so that the woman and the spectrum occupied 
only one half of the frame, the other half of which is made up of sprocket 
holes frilled with rapidly changing edge letters, while on the far right, half 
of the woman's head appears again. 

When the strip was to become Film in which, Landow instructed the 
laboratory not to clean the dirt from the film and to make a clean splice 
that would hide the repetitions. The resulting film, a found object extended 
to a simple structure, is the essence of minimal cinema. The woman's face 
is static — perhaps a blink is glimpsed; the sprocket holes do not move but 
waver slightly as the system of edge lettering flashes around them. Deep 
into the film the dirt begins to form time patterns, and the film ends. 

Bardo Follies (1966) refers in its title to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. 
The film begins with a loop-printed image of a water flotilla moving past 
a woman who waves to us at every turn of the loop. After about ten 
minutes (there is a shorter version too) the same loop appears doubled into 
a set of circles against the black screen. Then there are three circles for an 
instant. The film image in the circles begins to burn, creating a moldy, 
wavering, orange-dominated mass. Eventually the entire screen fills with 
one burning frame which disintegrates in slow motion in an extremely 
grainy soft focus. Another frame burns, and the whole screen throbs with 
melting celluloid. Probably this was created by several generations of pho- 
tography off the screen — its effect is to make the screen itself seem to throb 
and smolder. The anticipatory tension of the banal loop is maintained 
throughout this section in which the film stock itself seems to die. After a 
long while it becomes a split screen of bubbles created when the projector 
lamp burns emulsion, with a different color on each side of the screen. 
Through changes of focus the bubbles lose shape and dissolve into one 
another. Finally, some forty minutes after the first loop, the screen goes 



In The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968), Lan- 
dow extends the structural principle of the loop into a cycle of visions. 
Here we see in black-and-white the head of a working animator; he draws 
a line, makes a body; then he animates a grotesque humanoid shape. In 
negative a woman points to the drawing and taps on it with a pencil. This 
sequence of shots — the back of the animator, the animation, the negative 
woman looking at it — occurs three times, but sometimes there is more 
negative material in one cycle than in another. Next we see the animator, 
this time from the front; he is creating a similar monster; he animates it. 
Again we see him from the front; again he animates it. Such is the action 
of the film. A wailing sound from Tibet accompanies the whole film. The 
title as well is Eastern: Landow read about "the film that rises to the 
surface of clarified butter" in the Upanishads. 

The ontological distinction between graphic, two-dimensional modal- 
ity (the monsters) and photographic naturalism (the animators, even the 
pen resting beside the monsters as they move in movie illusion), which is 
used as a metaphor for the relation of film itself (a two-dimensional field 
of illusion) to actuality, is a classic trope implicit since the beginning of 
animation and explicit countless times before Landow. Yet this is the first 
film constructed solely around this metaphor. 

Landow's structural films are all based on simple situations: the vari- 
ations on announcing and looking (Fleming Faloon), the extrinsic visual 
interest in a film frame (Film in which there appear sprocket holes, edge 
lettering, dirt particles, etc.), a meditation on the pure light trapped in a 
ridiculous image (Bardo Follies), and the echo of an illusion (Film That 
Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter). His remarkable faculty is as maker 
of images, for the simple found objects (Film in which and the beginning 
of Bardo Follies) he uses and the images he photographs are radical, super- 
real, and haunting. 

Several film-makers extended their aspirations for an unmediated cin- 
ema which would directly reflect or induce states of mind and which first 
generated the structural film, into a participatory form which addressed 
itself to the decision-making and logical faculties of the viewer. George 
Landow and Hollis Frampton were the most significant film-makers to 
span the transition from structural to participatory modes. 14 This shift 
marks an evolution within the structural film. 

Institutional Quality (1969), Remedial Reading Comprehension 
(1971), and What's Wrong with This Picture? (1972) constitute Landow's 
contribution to this development. As in all his previous films the form of 
Institutional Quality is closed and more or less dominated by a single 
image. In this case it is a schoolmarm, administering to the viewer expe- 
riences reminiscent of childhood psychological perception tests and the 
television series Winky Dink and You, in which children were encouraged 
to draw upon a transparent sheet over the television screen, guided by an 
instructor on the air. Landow's teacher instructs us, "There is a picture on 
your desk," and we see a bourgeois living room whose only sign of motion 



is the banding fluctuation of its television screen. The instructions of the 
teacher remain accurately within the rhetoric of testing, but the montage 
of the film and the apperceptive condition of the viewer make these in- 
structions ironic. After calling our attention to the picture of the living 
room, she says, "Do not look at the picture," an order that the film spec- 
tator must blatantly ignore. At the end when she says "Now write your 
first name and your last name at the bottom of the picture," the image 
flares to white before we see that the film-maker has written his name at 
the end of his picture: "By George Landow." 

When the voice instructs the viewer to put the number 3 over the 
object one would touch to turn on the television, a hand as big as the 
whole living room appears and pencils a three on the television screen, 
which destroys our illusion of scale and indicates the literal flatness of our 
own motion picture screen. Throughout the film the voice continues these 
instructions, and whenever the living room is visible, the hand obeys. 
There is no let-up in the voice, but more and more the image cuts away 
from the middle-class living room to pictures and questions about 8mm 
and 16mm films. The numbering of the objects in the room is reflected in 
the printed numbers over the picture of a projector indicating its operating 
parts. In a final didactic gesture, titled "A Re-Enactment" in letters printed 
over the image, an embarrassed and giggling woman demonstrates the 
threading procedure for loading an 8mm projector. "A Re-Enactment" is 
itself part of the television rhetoric used to describe the dramatization of 
the comparative testing of similar products within a commercial. 

The fumbling and embarrassed performance of the demonstrator 
points up Landow's growing concern with facsimiles and counterfeits. In 
the second part of What's Wrong with This Picture? he remade an instruc- 
tional film about civic ethics, with slight flaws. The shaky superimpositions 
and the quality of performance in the demonstration of equipment in In- 
stitutional Quality participate in this aesthetic of faulty facsimiles. 

In Remedial Reading Comprehension he repeats and varies many of 
the tactics of the previous film, but this time he includes an actual found 
object along with his counterfeits. A speed-reading training film flashes 
short phrases from a sequential text. The whole of Remedial Reading 
Comprehension is a film of short phrases in an ambiguously didactic se- 
quence. Dream inspiration and academic education are conflated in an 
opening that cuts from a sleeping woman to a classroom, expanding from 
a corner of the screen above her as if it were a"balloon" until it fills the 
screen, blotting her out. At the cry of "lights," a faked commercial for rice 
appears, contrasting a grain of brown rice with one of converted rice. 

The act of reading is amplified by bracketing two images of the film- 
maker running in flattened space created by rephotography off a screen; 
over his doubly superimposed picture appears the statement, "This Is A 
Film About You." When the running image returns, the sentence con- 
cludes. "Not About Its Maker." 



Landow has referred to these films as an autobiography. It is an au- 
tobiography, or more exactly a bildungs-roman, devoid of psychology, 
moving in an elliptical leap from childhood and grammar school to college. 
Hollis Frampton too has used the participatory film for the indirect and 
serial "autobiography," Hapax Legomema, a title derived from classical 
philology, referring to those words of which only one instance survives in 
the ancient texts. 

Just before embarking on the serial film, Frampton completed his ma- 
jor work, Zorns Lemma (1970). This film is divided into three sections: 
an initial imageless reading of the Bay State Primer; a long series of silent 
shots, each one second long of photographed signs edited to form one 
complete Latin alphabet; and finally a single shot of two people walking 
across a snow-covered field away from the camera to the sound of a choral 

The first of several intellectual orders which Frampton provides as 
structural models within the film is, of course, the alphabet. The Bay State 
Primer announces, and the central forty minutes of this hour long film 
elaborates upon it. Within that section a second kind of ordering occurs; 
letters begin to drop out of the alphabet and their one-second pulse is 
replaced by an image without a sign. The first to go is X, replaced by a 
fire; a little later Z is replaced by waves breaking backwards. Once an 
image is replaced, it will always have the same substitution; in the slot of 
X the fire continues for a second each time, the sea rolls backwards at the 
end of each alphabet once the initial substitution occurs. On the other 
hand, the signs are different in every cycle. 

The substitution process sets in action a guessing game and a timing 
device. Since the letters seem to disappear roughly in inverse proportion 
to their distribution as initial letters of words in English, the viewer can 
with occasional accuracy guess which letter will drop out next. He also 
suspects that when the alphabet has been completely replaced, the film or 
the section will end. 

A second timing mechanism exists within the substitution images 
themselves, and it gains force as the alphabetic cycles come toward a con- 
clusion. Some of the substitution images imply their own termination. The 
tying of shoes which replaces P, the washing of hands (G), the changing 
of a tire (T), and especially the filling of the frame with dried beans (N) 
add a time dimension essentially different from that of the waves, or a 
static tree (F), a red ibis flapping its wings (B), or cattails swaying in the 
wind (Y). The clocking mechanism of the finite acts is confirmed by their 
synchronous drive toward completion which becomes evident in the last 
minutes of the section. 

In an elaborate set of notes on the film and its generating formulas, 
Frampton even describes its structure as autobiographical, the three parts 
corresponding to his Judeo-Christian upbringing, his development from 
being a poet to a film-maker while living in New York City, which is the 

George Landow in Remedial Reading Comprehension: the 
text declares the participatory film's paradoxical inversion 
of the trance film. 



background of the signs and replacements, and finally a prophecy of his 
move to the country. He lists the criteria for choosing the replacements as: 

1. banality. Exceptions: S, C (animal images); 

2. "sculptural" as distinct from "painterly" (as in word-images) 
work being done, i.e. illusion of space or substance con- 
sciously entered and dealt with, as against mimesis of such 
action. Exceptions D.K (cutting cookies, digging a hole); 

3. Cinematic or para-cinematic reference, however oblique. To 
my mind any phenomena is para-cinematic if it shares one el- 
ement with cinema, e.g. modularity with respect to space or 

Consider also the problems of alternating scale, and maintaining 
the fourfold hopi analysis: convergent vs. non-convergent/ 


In the final section the visual pulse shifts to the aural level as six 
women recite the translation of Grosseteste's "On Light, or the Ingression 
of Forms" in phrases one second apiece. His decision to allow one second 
to be the pulse of his film attempts to replace Kubelka's reduction to the 
metric of the machinery (the single frame) with an arbitrary tempo. This 
is one of several totalizations and parodies of the quests of the graphic 
film in Zorns Lemma. The blank screen of the opening section had been 
one; secondly, by mixing flat collages with the actual street signs in the 
middle section, he compounded the paradoxes of reading and depth per- 
ception that the graphic film inherited from Leger, and which Landow 
explored in his participatory films. 

In Zorns Lemma Frampton followed the tactics of his two elected 
literary masters, Jorge Luis Borges and Ezra Pound. From Borges he 
learned the art of labyrinthine construction and the dialectic of presenting 
and obliterating the self. Following Pound, Frampton has incorporated in 
the end of his film a crucial indirect allusion; it is to the paradox of Arnulf 
Rainer's reduction. In Grosseteste's essay, materiality is the final dissolu- 
tion, or the point of weakest articulation, of pure light. But in the graphic 
cinema that vector is reversed. In the quest for sheer materiality — for an 
image that would be, and not simply represent — the artist seeks endless 
refinement of light itself. As the choral text moves from Neoplatonic 
source-light to the grosser impurities of objective reality, Frampton slowly 
opens the shutter, washing out his snowscape into the untinted whiteness 
of the screen. 

Zorns Lemma takes its title from set theory, where it seems that "every 
partially ordered set contains a maximal fully ordered subset." The units 
of one second each, the alphabets, and the replacement images are ordered 
sets within the film. Our perception of the film is a participation in the 
discovery of the ordering. Other Frampton films derive their titles from 
specialized disciplines — physics in the case of States (1967/1970), Max- 


well's Demon (1968), Surface Tension (1968), and Prince Rupert's Drops 
(1969), and philology in Palindrome (1969) — and take their structural 
models from the academic disciplines. 

A film such as Zorns Lemma must come about from an elaborate 
preconception of its form. That kind of preconception is radically different 
from the organicism of Markopoulos, Brakhage, Baillie, and indeed most 
of the film-makers treated in the early and middle chapters of this book. 
In the elaborate chain of cycles and epicycles which constitutes the history 
of the American avant-garde film, the Symbolist aesthetic which animated 
the films and theories of Maya Deren returns, with a radically different 
emphasis, in the structural cinema. Although dream and ritual had been 
the focus of her attention, she advocated a chastening of the moment of 
inspiration and a conquest of the unconscious, a process which she asso- 
ciated with Classicism. The film-makers who followed her pursued the 
metaphors of dream and ritual by which she had defined t